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BlackBerry Sour – The new Q10 and the struggle to attract customers and apps

The last two years of high school, and then as a college freshman I worked for a small indirect cellphone dealer here in town. I would sell phones from a handful of carriers, based solely on where they were going to be using the phone.

In 2000, there were no exclusive device deals, there weren’t any premium features to be found on a device. Put simply — a cell phone had one purpose: to make and receive phone calls. Text messaging didn’t even work on the networks in the U.S. at the time. VoiceStream, USWest, Cellular One and Sprint were the carriers that “ruled the air,” as Verizon would now say.

At the time the thought of being able to send text messages, short 160-character messages, from phone to phone in a matter of seconds seemed too good to be true. Soon after reading about SMS messages for the first time, text messaging quickly became the de-facto form of communication for the younger generation. Then users started hearing about devices that would not only allow you to send text messages, but devices that came equipped with a full QWERTY keyboard and e-mail capabilities. Sending an e-mail from a phone, a smartphone as it were, sounded like a scene straight out of Space Odyssey 2001.

The BlackBerry Q10 | Jason Cipriani for the PULP
The BlackBerry Q10 | Jason Cipriani for the PULP

There may have been more than one player pioneering the smartphone industry, but the company with arguably the biggest impact was called Research In Motion from Canada.

RIM made BlackBerry a household name for smartphones. The name became so synonymous with the company it would later change its name from RIM to BlackBerry.

At the time BlackBerry’s were what you used if you wanted to do more than just place a call or send a text message on a phone. The keyboards on BlackBerry’s couldn’t be matched by Danger and its long line of Sidekick handsets, or by Palm and its Treo line. Sure, the keyboards offered by competitors were sufficient for a portable device, but they didn’t even compare to a BlackBerry keyboard.

When you carried a BlackBerry, mentally you already felt like you were more productive. You felt like there was nothing that could be thrown at you throughout a business day that you couldn’t handle from your phone.

A BlackBerry helped you to do your job, and do your job well.

Eventually developers discovered making apps for BlackBerry’s was a profitable business. With little to no apps being available, users would purchase any app they found to be even remotely a good idea — no matter how well it worked.

The BlackBerry Q10 | Jason Cipriani for the PULP
The BlackBerry Q10 | Jason Cipriani for the PULP

Fast forward to today, RIM is BlackBerry, Apple and Samsung are in a constant battle for leading marketshare, Google has a smartphone you wear on your head and Palm no longer exists. A lot has changed since BlackBerry reigned supreme.

The announcement of the original iPhone, 6-years ago, began an industry wide change. In 2007 touchscreen devices were just starting to catch on, but most of them still had a physical keyboard attached to them (I never met a single slider phone I enjoyed using). The physical keyboard was a standard set by BlackBerry, and one every company in the wireless industry was afraid to get away from, no matter what.  

Now you’re hard pressed to find a smartphone with a physical keyboard. During the last few years the company has been building a new operating system, formatted specifically for a touch-centric world. The new OS is called BlackBerry 10.

Instead of launching a keyboard BlackBerry 10 device before a touchscreen device, BlackBerry opted to release the BlackBerry Z10 first. You won’t find any keys on the Z10, save for a power button and the volume buttons.

A few months later the BlackBerry Q10 would be released. At the time, many argued BlackBerry should have catered to its keyboard-faithful and released the Q10 at the same time, if not before the Z10. Were they right? There’s only way one way to find out; let’s take a look.

The Q10 features a 3.1″ touch display, with a full QWERTY keyboard just below it. Gone are the trackpad and navigation buttons found on legacy models. The camera boasts 1080p HD video recording capabilities, and 8 MP still camera. If you’re into the more technical aspects of a device, the Q10 packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, 2 GB RAM, 16 GB of internal storage, 2100mAH removable battery and a 330ppi Super AMOLED display. Of course you’ll find the latest network support for 4G LTE across all carriers it’s currently available on (Sprint is the lone holdout of major U.S. carriers).

The BlackBerry Q10 | Jason Cipriani for the PULP
The BlackBerry Q10 | Jason Cipriani for the PULP

Naturally the Q10 runs BlackBerry 10, packed full of new features that could have only been brought to the platform by building a brand new OS from the ground up. In the BlackBerry Hub you’ll find quick access to any and all of your messaging accounts. Here you can manage email, social networks, text messaging, BBM and various other instant messaging networks. After using the Hub for some time, I have to say it’s one of the best ways to manage messages and communication on any mobile platform. The ability to quickly jump in and out of conversations — regardless of what path that conversation takes once it leaves your device — is a productivity booster. You can reply to a Twitter Direct Message, Facebook Message, email, text message and BBM all within the same unified inbox. At first I expected it to be nothing short of overwhelming. I receive a lot of email, and the thought of having to sort through email just to find a text message wasn’t appealing. But to my surprise, the Hub keeps everything neatly organized and easy is very easy to navigate. If you do need to narrow down to a specific type of message, you can do so with a quick gesture.

BlackBerry 10 is not only touch-centric, but most all of the interaction with users is based off of gestures. From unlocking the device by swiping up from the bezel just above the keyboard, to swiping down from the top to reveal menus, to swiping up and to the right to peak into your Hub from any screen — gestures rule BlackBerry 10.

Switching back to an Android device or an iPhone after a week or so it was amusing to see how quickly my muscle memory had set in. I was constantly trying to swipe up, over and down to access various functions on devices not built with gesture support.

Physical keys dominated the mobile landscape for so long, but now it takes time to adjust back to having to be 100% accurate with your typing. We have become spoiled by auto-correct (even with its hilarious errors) and Swype. Being able to blindly tap away at pixelated keys, relying on software to decipher and predict what it is we are trying to say is the new norm. With that being said, the keyboard on the Q10 is one of the best I have ever used. Plus the clickity-clack sound of keys being pressed on the BlackBerry definitely has some nostalgia to it.

The biggest issue I have with the Q10 is that it’s a keyboard device, running an OS that’s built and meant for a device that’s full touch screen. Sure the overall user-interface has been customized for the smaller screen, but it hasn’t been optimized. Just take a look at the application permission request dialogue.  You can’t even read the text for each permission without having to scroll. And you can’t scroll the bottom half of the dialogue, only the top half. It’s far from user friendly, let alone easy on the eyes. Inconsistencies like this are present throughout BlackBerry 10 on the Q10. On the Z10 this dialogue looks just fine; with plenty of room to read the dialogue and a clear area to scroll to read more.

BlackBerry 10 was built for full touch screen devices first, keyboard devices like the Q10 last.

Looking at it purely from specifications — the Q10 is a competitive device. But unfortunately, specifications aren’t something most consumers care about, let alone know what the numbers will even mean for the end experience. In the end the first question I hear when I start discussing a new device with someone is “does it have [insert app name here]?” or “can I use [insert app name here] on it?”. And more often than not when it comes to BlackBerry 10, the answer is no.

There are a lot of apps available, and BlackBerry has done a tremendous job to attract small independent developers to the platform, but it hasn’t been able to attract big name developers. You will find apps like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn built into the platform, but you won’t find apps like Starbucks, Netflix, Spotify, Hulu Plus and Instagram.

Those same BlackBerry users who once didn’t care about the quality of an app are now finding themselves unable to live without quality apps.

There’s no doubt in my mind the Q10 will appease the BlackBerry faithful who lust for a keyboard device, but the general public is more likely to shy away from it. It feels forced with BlackBerry 10, and only done to appease the faithful. Releasing the Z10 first was the right thing to do. The faithful were going to be there no matter what.

Rumors are circulating of another BlackBerry device set to launch later this year. The device is said to have a larger 5-inch touch screen and offer the best experience yet for BlackBerry 10. I sure hope that’s the case. I’d love to see BlackBerry begin to gain traction and grab marketshare the other big players in the mobile industry. But before it can do that, it needs to entice big developers to bring apps to the platform on an amazing device. Hopefully the rumored A10 will do it.

Then again, I’m not saying anything BlackBerry doesn’t already know.

 

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