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.

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One response

3 07 2013
reputation repair

Hi there, I check your blog on a regular basis.
Your story-telling style is witty, keep up the
good work!

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