BlackBerry was once the ruler of the smartphone world. In the days before the iPhone came along and changed handset design forever, phones came in a wide variety of strange shapes and sizes. The BlackBerry format became hugely popular, offering an ergonomic interface with excellent services that made it appealing to a wide demographic.
BlackBerry was initially linked with business use, an association that it still carries to some extent. Typing messages is easy on the well-designed physical keypad and the push email function, which keeps the user automatically notified when messages come in, is perfect for business customers using the device for work.
However, the BlackBerry brand has fallen out of favour with mobile buyers and RIM’s market share has seen a downturn. The Canadian manufacturer is setting its sights on a new direction for the platform with the announcement of its upcoming BB10 OS at this year’s BlackBerry World event, having demonstrated several impressive new features that will be included in the new operating system. But BB10 is a complete overhaul and will not be compatible with existing devices, meaning today’s BlackBerry phones will not be upgraded from BB7.
Bearing all this in mind, why would anyone buy a BlackBerry right now?
Physical QWERTY Keypads
To answer that question, let’s first take a look at that feature that has become a BlackBerry trademark and something that RIM has used on many of its leading devices – the physical QWERTY keypad.
In the age of large touchscreen phones, physical keys have fallen out of fashion. HTC recently announced that QWERTYs were not going to feature in the Taiwanese manufacturers future plans, with the firm’s creative director, Claude Zellweger, telling mobile tech site Pocket-Lint; “There’s a sort of die-hard community that keeps wanting it, but we feel that putting too much effort into that would take away from our main focus”. Even though few other manufacturers have been quite so open regarding their plans, devices fitted with physical keypads have gradually become fewer and further between.
However, if Zellweger is right and there is a hardcore of mobile consumers who want QWERTY keypads then where are they now to turn? With RIM having been a leading mobile manufacturer for so long and gathered so much experience of building tactile, ergonomic physical keypads then the BlackBerry could be a good choice.
RIM’s recently released Curve 9320 is a masterclass in how to put together a non-touchscreen device that is effortless to use. The phone’s keys show the manufacturer’s years of experience in design – the keypad is easy to type on with the buttons being both comfortable and responsive. To back up opinion with fact, we decided to put RIM’s latest device to the test against other handsets with physical keys.
The Guinness Book of World Records has approved a phrase which the institution believes effectively measures how quickly a person can type on a mobile phone. Using these words, we tested RIM’s latest device against two other recent handsets which feature physical keypads, the Nokia Asha 302 and HTC Cha Cha, with several volunteers from around the Dialaphone office typing the phrase on each of the three phones before an average time was collated from the results.
Although no-one managed to complete the task in any time even approaching world record holder Melissa Thompson’s 25.94s, the results give a reflection of which of the different devices was the easiest on which to type.
The BlackBerry Curve 9320 came out on top, just slightly ahead of the HTC Cha Cha, with the Nokia Asha 302 coming in third. Whilst taking the test, we found that although the HTC device’s keys were well-spaced and easy to press, the overall size of the BlackBerry’s keypad coupled with the perfectly-shaped buttons made it the stand out device. The Curve 9320 also seemed more sturdy than the other devices when we were typing on it, with the keys feeling tactile and well-built.
So the BlackBerry proves to still be a winner when it comes to physical keypads and RIM’s experience of building them shows in the device’s performance. However, there is another, less immediately obvious, advantage that a BlackBerry has over other phones.
Business users may well have initially picked up one of RIM’s handsets due to the convenience it offers with email but the assurance that the brand name brings, in terms of keeping all that important data safe, is a big added bonus.
RIM has an excellent history of mobile security. An illustration of this is the popularity of the Canadian manufacturer’s devices amongst US security officials, with the heads of both the CIA and FBI rumoured to have BlackBerry handsets themselves. Barack Obama used a BlackBerry during his time in the US senate, only surrendering the device when he became President. Reasons for him having to give up his BlackBerry were less to do with the risk of data being intercepted and more to do with fears that the device’s GPS system may enable someone to track his movements. There were also several legal issues involving presidential correspondence being recorded and made public – it would be difficult to save every single BBM message that he sent to his wife and kids.
However, mobile security is not just something that high-level government officials need to be concerned about. A Trojan which specifically targeted Android devices was recently discovered by a security firm, showing that the concept of malware is not restricted to computers. With more and more information being stored on mobile devices, be it contact details or information from a user’s bank accounts, mobile security could well become more and more important to consumers.
RIM may have mostly shied-away from large touchscreens due to the popularity of the physical keypad with its consumer base but this decision has brought about other advantages. The smaller screen sported by most BlackBerry handsets is a far smaller drain on the device’s battery than the 4-inch-plus touchscreens that have become a more recent trend, something which must sit well with the business community on which RIM has long been able to depend. Being out of the office all day means you have nowhere to charge your device.
Lastly, but well worth a mention, is the variety of the BlackBerry range – there are devices to suit many different needs. From the Bold 9900 down to the lower-priced Curve series RIM has managed to tailor its platform to offer more variety than iOS and more focus than Android. If you want an up-to-date Apple device you are going to have to fork out a considerable sum and there are a number of differences between the adaptations that different manufacturers make to the Android platform. The BlackBerry platform allows the consumer plenty of options, all of which are in a familiar format.
Buying a BlackBerry now will mean that you miss out on the upcoming BB10 software. However, not everybody is bothered about having the most up-to-date tech, instead preferring a reliable, dependable device that delivers simple functions well. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop recently said that “consumers really don’t care which OS powers their handsets”, highlighting the fact that some people would choose convenience over up-to-date features.
As well as announcing BB10, RIM has confirmed that it will continue to support BB7, keeping around two hundred staff on to work on the platform. The manufacturer has also said that although launch devices for its new software will feature large touchscreens it will adapt the platform for physical keypads in the future. For now, the BlackBerry still has a proud name with something to offer to its users and it will be interesting to see where RIM takes its trademark range in the future.