Accordion Al - image by Ivy, age 10

Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

RIM’s new Bold move not quite bold enough

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver october 11-17, 2011 issue #1146 High Tech Office column

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 autofocus. .

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.

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