BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIMM) has a glaring weakness next to rivals like Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and Palm’s (PALM) Pre: Its user experience and elegance needs to get better, or it could eventually lose sales.
I’m trying out the new BlackBerry Tour this week — it goes on sale July 12 at Verizon and Sprint — and so far, it’s a solid gadget that any plastic-keyboard-addicted BlackBerry devotee should consider upgrading to. The screen and browser are especially nice compared to older BlackBerry models like the Curve.
But after a year on the iPhone, setting up a new BlackBerry was like figuring out a puzzle. It shouldn’t have to be.
Setting up email, for instance, was a 20-minute pain — versus a 2-minute breeze on the iPhone. If I weren’t a relentless nerd, I would have had to contact customer service to figure it out, costing someone time and money. (Note: Updates below, explaining that this problem was caused by an advanced, but useful, setting to my Google Apps account that I had checked off.)
For no reason it would explain, the BlackBerry software refused to work out-of-the-box with my standard Google Apps-furnished IMAP account. After typing in my address, it accepted it, only to tell me a few minutes later that it wasn’t working — that I needed to change some sort of IMAP setting. But where? Delete, repeat, fail.
Through trial and error, I discovered that if I typed in an invalid email address, I could trick it into offering me a different menu, where I could manually input my IMAP server information. That eventually worked, and now I am getting email nicely. But no one should have to trick their phone to do that.
Perhaps the option to manually configure an email account is hidden somewhere on the phone, but it’s not where it belongs — in the first window of the Email Setup wizard — so who knows. No one is supposed to have to find a hidden feature. Perhaps the intention is to spare people from having to input IMAP information in the first place, and that RIM is trying to be extra simple here. But when something doesn’t work, that’s no help.
RIM’s BlackBerry App World isn’t much better. Every app you install requires paging through a lengthy end-user agreement, and clicking the “I Agree” button way down at the end. The fact that Apple doesn’t require this for the iPhone App Store — the standard that every mobile maker should try to duplicate — seems like reason enough to figure out a better way to handle this. It also seems strange that BlackBerry apps aren’t downloaded directly to the “Applications” folder, but to a “Downloads” folder. You have to move them manually, which could get tiring after a while. (Also: Any app recommendations?)
And there’s a lot of little things.
- While the new BlackBerry Web browser is a big improvement over older ones, it’s still nowhere near as nice as the one on the iPhone or the Palm Pre. It doesn’t seem to have “smart” zooming features, which magnify text and not images, or zoom into a paragraph to make it the full size of the screen.
- Text handling is also sloppy, such as in an HTML email I read this morning, where there was a missing space in the BlackBerry email’s subject line, but not in any other client I read the message in.
- RIM could also afford to pay attention to details like its icons. There’s no reason the calendar icon, for instance, shouldn’t show today’s date, the way Apple’s does.
- Verizon’s Visual Voice Mail icon isn’t the same style as the rest of the phone’s icons, and looks sloppy.
To a layperson, these might sound like weightless gripes from an ex-Web designer. Maybe this sort of stuff doesn’t sell phones, and people are just buying iPhones to play games and goof off. There is definitely something special about RIM’s push email, which BlackBerry fanatics tell us they’ll never leave for Apple. And it’s not like Microsoft’s lack of taste and elegance stopped Windows from taking over the world.
But we’d like to think that simplicity and elegance do matter. For one, if RIM’s email setup were as good as Apple’s, it might save its carrier partners on customer service spending.
And as RIM counts more on self-selecting consumers for growth, not already-invested corporations, just looking good next to an iPhone or Palm Pre — and offering great first impressions — will be important. (During RIM’s first quarter, which ended in May, about 80% of new subscriber growth came from “non-enterprise” customers, which now account for more than half of its total subscriber base.)
RIM is still selling plenty of phones — 7.8 million last quarter — thanks to solid devices, wide carrier distribution, and promotions like buy-one, get-one-free handsets at Verizon. But to keep growing in the era of a $99 iPhone, RIM will need to start doing a better job with its user experience. Making things simpler and more elegant is a good start.
Update: Readers have pointed toward a Web-based RIM portal that could make this process easier to manage. I’m trying to get access to that now. Meanwhile, I’d note that customers who buy BlackBerries (or any phones) in a store would probably have access to personnel who could set this up for them, preventing headaches. But that’s not fixing the problem that the phone didn’t just work. Which is how gadgets should operate.
Update 2: It appears the email problem was because of the way my Google Apps account was configured. Specifically, I’d turned off synching “All Mail” via IMAP, because it’s a massive, redundant directory that includes both my Inbox and my Outbox. A support doc on RIM’s site explains that “All Mail” must be turned on to work via BlackBerry. After turning this setting back on, the BlackBerry was able to work with my email automatically. This is a fair compromise, but one that I don’t have to make on the iPhone.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.