RIM’s new Bold move not quite bold enough
by Alan Zisman (c) 2011
published in Business in
Vancouver october 11-17, 2011 issue #1146 High Tech
Increasingly, the red-hot smartphone market seems focused on the
competition between Apple – with speculation of an iPhone 5 launch this
fall – and Google’s Android – with new contenders arriving more or less
monthly from Samsung, HTC, Motorola and others.
HP dropped out of the smartphone (and tablet) sweepstakes this summer,
while Microsoft is hoping that an updated version of its Windows Phone
7 will breath new life into what have been lacklustre sales.
The Canadian contender, RIM, with its BlackBerry line, appears to have
been left on the sidelines. BlackBerries remain popular with enterprise
IT departments for their security, manageability and compatibility with
Microsoft Exchange servers. And there’s a surprising group of young
people hooked on communicating via BlackBerry Messenger.
RIM hasn’t seen significant sales of its PlayBook tablet, and neither
has it released promised upgrades to provide sorely needed services
like email and calendar. The company has laid off 2,000 employees and
watched stock prices drop to a five-year low.
Recently, when it released three new BlackBerry models hardly anyone
noticed. I’ve been using one of them – a BlackBerry Bold 9900 4G –
loaned to me by Virgin Mobile. In many ways, it’s the nicest BlackBerry
ever – a classy combination of stainless steel edge and black
hologram-patterned back with keys that glow in dim light. It’s thinner
and lighter than ever. Despite a fast 1.2-gigahertz processor it lasted
several days on a charge. And it retains the classic BlackBerry
keyboard beloved by millions of Curve and Bold users – far more
effective than the virtual keyboard on iPhones and most Android models.
While it retains the tiny touchpad of recent BlackBerry models, I never
used it. What sets the Bold 9900 apart is that it’s the first
“classic-style” BlackBerry to get a touch screen. Like older Bold and
Curve models, the screen is only half-sized, which is limiting if
you’ve gotten used to full-screen iPhone or Android phones. But the
640x480 resolution screen is clear and crisp, and the usually
responsive touch works well for navigating around it.
As on competing touch-screen smartphones, pinching and zooming works
well to enlarge, shrink and move around screens – especially useful on
web pages and maps. Combined with a new, fast browser, this is the most
web-friendly BlackBerry model that I’ve used.
The five-megapixel camera (720p video-capable) has a dedicated button –
a very good feature – and takes reasonable images given the lack of
Along with the other recently released BlackBerry models, the Bold 9900
runs a new BlackBerry operating system: BlackBerry 7. While the
PlayBook tablet runs an all-new QNX operating system, BlackBerry 7 is a
more modest upgrade, providing better backward compatibility. Overall
it’s straightforward and easy to use with one issue: icons on the Apps
screen lack identifying text labels making it a bit of a surprise when
I tapped on some of them.
Somewhat lacklustre: RIM’s App World is poorly organized with far fewer
apps than Apple or Android.
The touch screen seems a natural addition to the classic BlackBerry
design. The Bold 9900 adds touch without cutting off RIM’s legacy
features. It’s a conservative approach that will please long-time
BlackBerry users, but, I suspect fail to attract many new customers.
Virgin offers the Bold 9900 from $170 (with a three-year term) or for
$600 with no term; it is also available from Bell, Rogers and Telus.