BlackBerry Storm – a damp squib?

27 11 2008
BlackBerry Storm looks good on paper, but early reviews have been disappointing

BlackBerry Storm looks good on paper, but early reviews have been disappointing

At the beginning of November I wrote a comment piece for Ovum’s Straight Talk daily email bulletin, discussing RIM’s hot new Storm touchscreen handset. At the time, I hadn’t had a chance to play with the handset first hand, but I was careful to emphasise that a quality user experience would be vital for the Storm. The Storm has now launched in the UK and US (on Vodafone and Verizon networks respectively), and early reviews have slammed the handset for sluggish software, poor battery life and shoddy touchscreen performance. These are not good things for users’ experiences! Whispers of rushed firmware contributing to the problems have been circulating around the Intarwebz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the carriers have pushed RIM to release the Storm before it was truly ready.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good time to look back at my comments, now that I’ve seen the Storm and other people have had a chance to play with it and review it properly. I’ve copied some of my initial comments in red, my new responses are in black below.

“RIM is particularly excited about the Storm’s clickable user interface, which features a capacitive touch screen under a mildly dome-shaped glass layer, allowing the user to press the screen like a button to make menu selections or when typing text. RIM claims that the technology gives the user better feedback and reduces errors common to other types of touch screen. As with any new UI technology, we will reserve judgment until we’ve had a chance to try out the device first-hand.”

Well, it looks like the news isn’t good for RIM on this one. When I was playing with the Storm, I didn’t have too many problems with it, but obviously it takes longer than a few minutes to find issues. Most reviewers don’t like the new screen, which is the central selling point of the device. I think a clickable screen is a good idea for menu selections and low-frequency presses, and in my brief test I found the clicking motion to be quite satisfying. But many reviews complain that typing long emails is tiring, slow and no more accurate than using a conventional capacitive screen. Given that typing emails is the main reason for owning a BlackBerry, this is not a good look.

“The Storm has the usual feature set for current mid- to high-end handsets: GPS, a 3.2MP camera with LED flash, an accelerometer for rotating the display, and expandable storage through a microSD card slot. The lack of WiFi support may deter some buyers, although if the device is offered with unlimited data plans this will soak up some of the complaints.”

This is what happens when device manufacturers let network operators design handsets: features get left out. There is no technical reason why the Storm doesn’t include WiFi, it’s a commercial decision designed to increase data traffic (and revenues) on carrier networks. Frustrating for power users and roamers, and for those who live or work underground (or out of network range). The other features are resoundingly bog standard.

“On the software front, Storm has an updated version of the BlackBerry software (4.7), which adds support for the touch screen and accelerometer, and adds on-the-fly spellchecking and correction – to iron out typing errors caused by the touch screen. All the standard BlackBerry features are present: email, messaging, social networking, web browsing – and the all-important enterprise support that will make business users and IT managers sit up and take notice.”

From the reviews I’ve read, and from talking to people using the Storm, the new software sounds half-baked. Bugs, poor accelerometer calibration, slow reactions and – unbelievably for a BlackBerry – no “all-important enterprise support” for BES servers (the BlackBerry server technology that sits behind the company firewall in enterprise deployments). This means that many enterprise users, the bread and butter of RIM’s business, simply can’t use the Storm on their office mail servers.

This tells me two things: the Storm is definitely pitched at consumers (duh!); and it was definitely rushed out before it was ready. RIM is usually so careful to support enterprise users, it beggars belief that they’ve failed on this one!

Releasing buggy software might be ok if it’s a new PC browser or media player, but for a critical device like a BlackBerry handset there are really no excuses.

“With the Storm, RIM is now realistically competing for similar demographics to the iPhone, at least in the consumer space: youngish, tech-savvy ‘Gen-Y’ or ‘transitioners’ who want the latest gadgets and have the discretionary income to afford them. This segment is as much about technology as fashion, but success also requires advanced functionality and an outstanding user experience. These users need multimedia features, ‘connectedness’, social networking, expandability and the ability to customise their devices.”

The multimedia features of the Storm are strong, there’s no doubt. One thing I really like about RIM is the company’s willingness to support popular codecs like Xvid, on top of the standard MPEG4 and H.264 that Apple supports. The ability to play back the most popular video formats on the Internet without messing around transcoding and wasting time really is good, and contrasts with Apple’s insistence on only supporting video codecs that it sells through iTunes. The Storm’s screen looks great for video, the music player is good and displays album art very nicely, all in all this is solid.

The Storm also has integration with Vodafone’s music store. I’ll be honest, I’m unlikely to ever use such a feature (I’m not a fan of low bitrate DRMed pop music and most mobile carriers are not fans of un-DRMed high bitrate niche music), but some people will be desperate to get the latest Leona Lewis single quickly on the bus home, so fair enough.

As for social networking, I haven’t experienced RIM’s Facebook app or the IM clients, but this isn’t rocket surgery, so I hope they work as expected.

“This segment is becoming crowded with powerful multimedia touch-screen handsets… The Storm looks like a solid competitor to these devices, but the overall user experience will be critical if it is to be a real success in this market, as its ‘enterprise qualities’ will be less of a factor.”

A bad user experience is just about the worst mistake a handset manufacturer can make, especially in a competitive market. This means having good reception, decent battery life, applications that don’t freeze, responsive handling and intuitive design (both software and hardware). A big part of Motorola’s problem now is that millions of people bought a RAZR when RAZRs were cool, and the user experience was so shockingly bad that they swore never to buy a Moto again and ran straight back to Nokia. The iPhone (love it or hate it) has raised the bar on user experience, and the G1 doesn’t do a bad job of it either (even though it’s really a beta OS). Poor user experience is an EPIC fail.

If people hate using their phone, they will come to hate the company that made it. RIM needs to sort out its software problems very quickly, before millions of people buy Storms and decide that they’re a pile of steaming shit (read the reviews, or ask Steven Fry) while running off to trade for an iPhone or G1. If the Storm doesn’t yet work with a BES, most of the device sales are going to be consumers, whose handset choices are a lot more flexible than enterprise users.

If business customers are going to have to carry a work handset, they are increasingly likely to insist on a device they actually enjoy using… The Storm is a good compromise for business people who want a touch-screen device (like an iPhone), but need a BlackBerry (for all the reasons BlackBerry is ubiquitous in enterprise markets).

We wouldn’t want to bet that the Storm will blow away the (healthy) competition, but it is positioned nicely on the intersection of consumer and enterprise devices – this is potentially a device that can go from boardroom to nightclub – and this is perhaps where the Storm’s success will be.”

As I said weeks ago, I didn’t want to bet that the Storm will be a killer device, but I did have high hopes for it. I have a soft spot for the plucky Canadians at RIM, but it looks like this time they’ve bitten off a little bit too much and might be choking on the networks’… ummm… demands. Apparently the Storm is selling well so far, despite the negative reviews, but I really think that releasing unfinished products is a quick way to destroy any credibility RIM has.

Hopefully a swift software update improves the situation, because at the moment it looks like the Storm is seriously under-delivering on its potential.





Mobile developers’ choice: money or flexibility

25 11 2008

One of the really exciting things that’s happening at the moment in the world of mobile handsets is the growth of several key platforms for mobile application development. Recently I had a chance to chat to the developer of a third-party email application for the iPhone, Android and Symbian. I thought I’d share some of the issues that he raised which affect the way developers choose which platforms to work on, and his comments about two of the most popular mobile application stores. Developers of mobile apps balance risk and reward when deciding where to invest their time and effort. If they want to make money, they’ll need to balance their chance of making a profit with the difficulty of producing an app and getting it onto users’ devices.

In this little post I’m just going to discuss two of the most headline-friendly platforms, the iPhone and Android, which take very different approaches to getting applications onto handsets.

Apple

Apple is well known for tightly controlling what gets onto its App Store, with no apps that compete with Apple’s own core apps or anything being sold by Apple’s carrier partners allowed (along with numerous other tough conditions). For example, a developer could spend months on an application, only to see it rejected because Apple has been developing a competing product in secret. The process for approving and publishing applications is slow (two weeks) and opaque (apps can be refused or removed without explanation, despite complying with the stated terms of the SDK Agreement). Pushing updates and bug fixes to end users is frustratingly slow.

Our contact admitted that if the iPhone wasn’t so successful at making money for developers (100 million apps downloaded in the first two months of the App Store is phenomenal), he probably wouldn’t bother with the iPhone at all – the process really is a headache. From an end-user point of view, Apple has nailed the App Store, and the ease of downloading, installation and billing is what drives the high volume of app downloads and makes the headaches worthwhile for developers.

Google

In contrast, Google’s approach with Android is much more open – as long as developers don’t violate the basic terms of the Android agreement (generally no scams, pr0n or illegal stuff) they’re good to go. Uploading apps to the Android Market is practically instant, and developers know they won’t be wasting their time as long as they adhere to the clearly stated conditions of the Android Distribution Agreement. So what’s the downside? Android hasn’t yet proven itself capable of making money for developers, it hasn’t got the market traction that Apple has, and there is uncertainty around the potential for device fragmentation. But with a company as big as Google backing the platform, I think a lot of developers will be happy to take the bet, even if only to keep Apple honest.

Anyway, I drew a diagram. If Android can prove itself and developers see they can make money producing applications for it, it will be interesting to see if Apple is forced to loosen the shackles. But Apple has a large and growing captive audience, is a proven money-maker and has its developers by the short and curlies, to some extent. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the others: the platform with the largest market share in North America, RIM (also launching an App Store in early 2009); or the Symbian/S60 platform which has by far the largest global deployed base (several hundred million handsets worldwide) and widespread industry support; or the creaking Windows Mobile OS. Everyone’s getting in on the game, so I think it’s going to be interesting watching where the consumers, handset manufacturers and developers go over the next couple of years.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.





New Xbox Experience: discovery and social go Live

22 11 2008

NXE avatar

NXE adds the ability to create personal avatars


This is an edited version of a comment I wrote at the beginning of November (originally published in Straight Talk Daily). I’ve decided to come back to it here, now that I’ve had more opportunities to explore the NXE dashboard (Microsoft was generous enough to supply me with an Xbox 360 for research purposes) and form stronger impressions.

I think my original impressions of NXE were accurate enough (thankfully), but my efforts to explore Microsoft’s content store have been stymied by a strange technicality afflicting my Xbox Live account. When I created my Xbox Live account I used an existing Windows Live passport that I had been using for MSN, which I had created in Australia before I moved to the UK. Because of this, my Xbox Live account now thinks that I’m in Australia and, incredibly, there is no way to change this! I can change the console location or change my displayed location on my Xbox Live profile, but my account is still tied to Australia.

This is a problem because it means that none of the UK-based content is available to browse or download – which means no paid-for movie downloads! I think this also creates problems for purchasing points and so on, but I haven’t experimented with that aspect yet – to be honest I’m not inclined to risk wasting money on points if I’m not sure they’ll work. I believe I have to create a new Xbox Live account to get around this, which I think is a pointless and inexcusable error on Microsoft’s behalf. If I had spent years accumulating gaming achievements and an online identity, I would be absolutely LIVID if I was forced to discard my account for a reason as trivial as this.

Other than this issue, I think the NXE does what it says on the tin, and I’m a big fan of the Xbox 360’s ability to stream video and music from my home network. The final paragraph of my comment criticises Microsoft for lacking a true content ecosystem, I should emphasise that I mean an ecosystem for paid-for download content. The Xbox 360 is a great addition to a DRM-free content ecosystem! Just another demonstration that consumers are still much better off ripping their own purchased DVDs and music (despite the legal grey areas). By trying to preserve the value of their content using DRM, content owners are engaged in a self-defeating exercise. Content is far more valuable to consumers when it comes without crippling restrictions.

(November 3, 2008) Microsoft recently showed me what it calls its New Xbox Experience (NXE), a dashboard upgrade to the Xbox 360 games console. NXE gives the console a completely new user interface, improving the navigation on the console and adding some interesting personalisation, social and content discovery features. But I think Microsoft could have pushed further and cemented the Xbox 360’s place as a true entertainment hub.

Xbox Live is central to the Xbox user experience

My first impressions of the NXE upgrade were positive: the look and feel of the new software has greatly improved, and the changes will be popular with serious and more casual gamers alike. Microsoft has integrated its Xbox Live online service right into the heart of the console interface, with online content displaying alongside local content throughout the dashboard.

Jerry Johnson, General Manager, Xbox Live EMEA, explained that the new dashboard had been designed for a discovery (rather than a task-based) experience. The intention was to make users feel more comfortable exploring on their console, rather than simply switching it on for a single purpose. Exposing users to a wider array of paid-for content is a significant upshot to the redesign, and there is plenty of this available in the form of video downloads, the Xbox Live Arcade (downloadable games), game fan content and in-game add-ons (such as map packs, songs or character costumes). This premium downloadable content is clearly generating significant revenues, with the most popular content including map packs for some of its ‘triple-A’ game titles (Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4), and song packs for music game Rock Band.

Xbox Live has always been a real competitive advantage for Microsoft, as neither Nintendo nor Sony has managed to integrate online gaming, community and content features to the extent that Microsoft has done. This NXE update, combined with recent aggressive price drops, leaves Microsoft feeling confident leading into the ‘holiday’ season, when console sales are traditionally strongest.

Social features and improved accessibility broaden the appeal of Live

Microsoft has also added to the personalisation and social aspects of Xbox Live by giving players the ability to create a personal avatar (a cartoon character with customisable features and costume) linked to the player’s in-game achievements and online identity. Xbox Live players have always had a ‘gamer tag’ for rankings, achievements and friends, but with NXE this capability is expanded with extra social features (voice chat, friend groups) and easier ways of interacting with friends.

Part of this approach is broadening the appeal of Xbox Live, taking online gaming beyond the ‘foul-mouthed adolescent boy’ demographic and presenting a fun, accessible online environment for women and casual gamers. Women play games in huge numbers (Ovum’s recent report on our consumer survey showed that more than 15% of women aged 18-35 intend to buy a games console in the next 12 months) and Microsoft recognises this.

Where’s the device ecosystem?

NXE is definitely an improvement to the Xbox experience, but we think it should have gone further. Microsoft has spent years positioning the Xbox as a true entertainment ‘hub’ that goes beyond gaming. Xbox 360 can stream content from a PC and play it on a TV, but this is no longer a strong differentiator, and we would like to see Microsoft push further. Despite having all the pieces in place, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have a strategy for building a true content ecosystem around its various devices.

We believe that a true connected media hub would allow customers to buy content on any device, and then transfer it between multiple devices of different form factors to view it as and when they wish. This is possible (but fiddly) where DRM is absent, but until content owners allow legal DRM-free video download stores (if ever) an ecosystem approach will rely on multi-device DRM. The only company that seems willing and capable of building a content ecosystem is Apple (as long as you are willing to stick with Apple products). But with its Xbox, Zune, Windows, Windows Mobile and Windows CE platforms, Microsoft has the potential to create a powerful content ecosystem, across a huge array of devices from a huge array of manufacturers. Unfortunately, the company seems to struggle to break down its internal silos and deliver a true ecosystem experience.

Launching Zune into those markets where Microsoft already has an Xbox Live Marketplace and integrating Zune content into Xbox Live would be a good first start. This would bulk up the relatively weak video and music offerings currently on Xbox Live, while adding value for owners of both devices. This can only be good for content owners – consumers won’t buy content where they don’t see value.





My experience with a HSDPA-embedded netbook

14 11 2008

Dell Inspiron mini 9

A couple of weeks ago Vodafone lent us a Dell Inspiron mini 9 netbook with embedded HSDPA and a Vodafone SIM card, and I was lucky enough to have a couple of days’ quality time with this lovely little gadget. Here are my impressions, which I wrote as part of an Ovum report into cellular-embedded netbooks. The majority of this was edited down to fit into the broader report, so I thought I would share it here.

My use case for the netbook
I am a young (late-20’s) professional. I like being constantly connected, and I have an unlimited data plan on my mobile phone. I constantly use mobile email, social networking (Facebook, Twitter) and upload images and video from my phone to online services. I live and work relatively centrally in London (public transport Zone 2), commute by bicycle, and have a fixed line cable Internet service at home. I also use Skype extensively to talk with my family in Australia, and staying connected with friends and family around the world is one of the key reasons I would be interested in any Internet-enabled device.
I used the netbook at work, on the bus in central London, in the pub and at home in Islington. I thought the device itself was well designed and attractive, and I like the small size and light weight. I even ran the 5km to work one morning with the Inspiron mini in my backpack, and didn’t really notice it.
A big part of the appeal for me is the embedded HSPA – I don’t like having to carry a dongle, which I’m always worried about losing or damaging in my bag. I travel overseas frequently, and this sort of device would be a welcome addition to my backpack, for uploading photos and updating a travel blog while abroad, or emailing people to arrange to meet up. Being able to do this without having to carry a full-sized laptop is a very attractive selling point to me.

Device features
Having a small, highly portable form factor requires compromises in terms of keyboard and screen size, and I generally found this model struck a good balance between user experience and size. The screen is big enough for Web browsing and general email, although it obviously requires more scrolling than on a larger screen. A higher resolution screen would be better and allow more content onto the page, but would compromise the ability of manufacturers to produce the netbook at low enough price points (the raison d’etre of the netbook is, after all, to be small and cheap). I also found the screen to be slightly dull compared to my Macbook or my desktop LCD screen, which was a negative when browsing through photos and watching video.
Initially I had problems typing accurately on the reduced-size keyboard, but I found that I adjusted fairly quickly and was able to type at an acceptable rate after a few minutes.

The size and weight of the netbook were excellent, and the finish and build quality were good too. It attracted plenty of attention from colleagues in the office, and from my friends.
Battery life was adequate, even with WiFi and cellular radios switched on. It wouldn’t last for a long flight, but it would get me through a few pints at the pub while writing emails or catching up on my RSS feeds.

Mobile Connect Dashboard
The Dell comes with Vodafone’s Mobile Connect Dashboard software, which allows the user to connect to the cellular network and manage data usage. I thought the software was easy to use and showed me the key information on my data usage very clearly. When using the cellular network it is important to keep a close eye on usage to avoid being charged excess rates, and the software made this simple.

Network speed
I was surprised how fast browsing was using the HSDPA cellular connection. I had no problems with slow downloads or dropped connections, and found the whole experience to be really very good. YouTube videos loaded very quickly and played back with no problems, and downloading large applications was painless. It felt like a true broadband experience.
In a head-to-head comparison between the Dell and a larger laptop using a 3G dongle provided by one of the other major UK mobile carriers, we found the Vodafone network to be significantly faster at loading YouTube videos.

Device speed
We tested the Windows XP version of the Dell Inspiron mini, which has nearly identical hardware characteristics to most of its competitors. This is the Intel Atom chipset running at 1.6GHz with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of solid-state (SSD) storage.
I found browsing performance to be reasonable using both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and after downloading OpenOffice and doing some word processing and simple presentation tasks we found it to perform acceptably, if not blazingly fast. This is not a machine for serious image processing or editing video, but basic tasks like email, Web browsing and office tasks were fine.
I would be very interested to try the Linux version of the Dell, as I think the power constraints of the hardware are not particularly well suited to a full install of Windows XP. Performance is what I would call adequate, but it could have been snappier, particularly initial loading times (although the Dell does wake from sleep mode fairly quickly).
The Dell video chat software that loaded automatically definitely slowed things down, which was irritating.

Overall experience
Overall, I found using the netbook to be a good experience, taking into account the limitations of such a small device. It isn’t capable of replacing my full-size laptop, but there are various reasons why it would be a useful second laptop when portability is required.
My main concern as a consumer is with the pricing and contract model. As a second laptop, I simply couldn’t justify paying £25–30 a month for a secondary device (on top of a similar amount for my monthly mobile bill and my monthly fixed Internet bill). Also, given the huge range of similar devices available in the market, I would prefer to be able to choose the model that suited my needs and buy it outright, then pay for a SIM-only or prepaid data plan separately.
This is not necessarily good news for carriers that want to avoid becoming ‘bit pipe’ players (it provides few opportunities for deep device/service integration and doesn’t prevent me from churning), but from my perspective this would give me more flexibility to upgrade the hardware – at the current rate of innovation in the netbook market, I can’t honestly see the hardware meeting my needs for the duration of a 24-month contract.
I would also like to be able to use my data SIM in multiple devices – or link multiple SIMs to a single data account. As more embedded cellular devices come to market I don’t necessarily want to have separate SIMs and contracts for each device.
So at this stage, although I like the netbook and found it a useful addition to my gadget armory, the price is still not at a point where I would consider it good value for money, and I wouldn’t be willing to commit to a long contract while the market for HSPA-embedded netbooks is at such a nascent stage.





INQ1 means mobile social web is for everyone

14 11 2008

This morning 3 UK announced a cool new handset, the INQ1, a low-cost device designed to make it easy for people to access web services and social networking sites. I was lucky enough to be shown the INQ1 device last week when the CEO of INQ, my compatriot Frank Meehan, dropped into the Ovum office to meet us and show us his new toy. INQ (pronounced “ink”) is the new independent handset division of 3’s parent company Hutchison, and the INQ1 is its first branded device to market.

The handset itself is nice enough, a fairly solid and compact brushed-aluminium slider. It feels well put together, the screen is good quality, it’s an attractive if somewhat nondescript handset. But this handset is all about the software and the promise it holds. Running a proprietary OS based on Qualcomm’s BREW platform, this is the first time a handset vendor has tried – really, truly tried – to deeply integrate the web and internet services into a mass-market device. And I think that’s a really exciting prospect for people who like the mobile web.

You can read all about the INQ1’s deep integration of Skype and Facebook into its contact list, and all the other services it offers (widgets, IM, email – all the stuff the kids are down with) somewhere else. Suffice to say that when I was playing with the phone, it all did what it says on the tin. The UI is pretty simple and colourful, the ‘carousel’ application launcher is easy to navigate. I really liked it. My sister would probably like it too.

And I guess that’s the point. My sister doesn’t necessarily want to pay for a Nokia N96 or an iPhone just so she can access Facebook from her phone. And why should she? Facebook doesn’t require a fast processor, a touch screen, a GPS. It just needs a well executed software solution. INQ has noticed the bleeding obvious – that the mass market is using social networking sites and messaging hand over fist on the desktop – and has provided a simple and – now this bit is really important – CHEAP way of shifting that established and hugely popular behaviour onto mobiles. This is a handset that will get more people using more data and more mobile services. Awesome!

This is good for consumers because it helps them connect in ways they enjoy, without costing an arm and a leg. It’s good for carriers because it opens up a huge addressable market for data revenues and value-added services, while lightening the burden of expensive handset subsidies. I think INQ has made a really good bet, and I hope it succeeds. Of course it won’t be easy for INQ to grow from a standing start into a significant market force, so success will be measured partly by the reactions of other handset vendors. INQ has proven it’s possible to build a cheap handset designed around the web. Let’s see if Nokia and the others can respond.





Coming soon…

13 11 2008

the platform is soon to be resurrected!