Not a day passes without an article about the impending death of Nokia or RIM popping up in my news feeds. They make the wrong choices! They can't last through another delay! The next-gen product is too little too late! Sure, things aren’t looking good for the two companies right now, but the press does seem to take a vicious sort of pleasure in passing death sentences. Both companies have impressive-sounding plans for the future, even though that future seems to be postponed every so often. They also have something else in common: extremely strong loyalty and large user bases in emerging markets such as India. Nokia rose to near-monopoly status here at the onset of the mobile era and maintained it for nearly a decade. RIM came in relatively recently and immediately struck a chord with fashionable folk, but its dropoff has been equally prodigious.
I often see people trading their BlackBerrys for iPhones and their Nokias for Androids, but I can't base an opinion piece on that alone. I’ve owned and used enough Nokias over the past decade to feel qualified enough to talk about how and when they went wrong, but till a few months ago I had never actually used a BlackBerry for an extended period of time. I was never drawn to the BBM craze or convinced that a physical keyboard was the holy grail. If, six months from now, I need to mourn this company’s demise or celebrate their next-gen BB10 platform, I should at least be familiar with their products. To satisfy my curiosity, I asked RIM for a long-term test unit, which they happily provided. Thus, I spent a month with a Blackberry Bold 9790—not the highest-end model, but a classic BlackBerry running the current OS 7.
I’m glad I did. I have a completely new perspective about why the company is where it is right now. The 9790 is a lovely phone. It’s constructed beautifully and feels great in the hand. It’s superb at voice calls, it handles email and messaging functions seamlessly, and I had no complaints whatsoever about the battery life. I can understand why BlackBerrys revolutionised business and the very concept of being reachable wherever you are. There are dozens of clever touches everywhere, like the bedside mode and killer keyboard shortcuts that appeal to all my geeky instincts.
The problem is that everything is just a bit too fidgety. This is where the parallels with Nokia’s decline become apparent: in the age of iPhones and Androids, people expect quick, simple, ways to get things done. We've been spoilt by fluid interfaces and snappy visuals. It shouldn’t take half a day to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot and it shouldn’t take dozens of steps just to save a contact. I love the idea of minutely customisable ringtones and alerts, but when I just want to go to silent mode, it should be possible in an instant. The iPhone made these things simple from day one, and tellingly enough, that's why it was laughed at by the same people who have spent the last five years scrambling desperately to produce a viable alternative. Perhaps, Apple overdid it with simplifying the interface and taking control away from the user, but it seems that for ordinary users, its instincts were correct. Too often, using the Blackberry felt like a chore, and none of the user-focused features of OS 7 changed this perception.
It's obvious that BB10 has to fix these issues and give people the kind of experience that they've come to expect. I have no doubt that RIM can pull off quality products and I have high hopes for the future.