BlackBerry Bold 9900: The Swan Song of a Standard

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Still, given the BlackBerry's professional audience, some users may want to do at least basic editing when on the road. For that audience, the BlackBerry includes a basic version of Documents to Go (RIM owns the company that produces this software). Docs to Go is awkward to use but can handle basic text edits in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, as well as simple formatting such as boldfacing text. Tracked changes are removed from the document, and though extensive editing is theoretically possible, you're hamstrung by the device's tiny screen.

If you want a smartphone with apps you'd want to actually use on a smartphone, look elsewhere than the BlackBerry.

App Management.

The BlackBerry puts apps in one of four screens (All, Favorites, Media, and Downloads), which you can easily swipe among from the home screen. There's also a Frequent screen that holds copies of icons to frequently used apps. To get to the apps screens, just drag up the triangle icon at the bottom of the screen. Often, the first row of your All screen appears on the home screen; you can drag it up to see more icons, as well as swipe to navigate among the four apps screens in that single-row view. Note that the icons are often obscure, so it's hard to know what app an icon opens; there is of course no text label or option to display one.

You can also move among screens and to folders, but the process is a bit awkward: Long-tap the app, then choose Move from the grid of icons that appears. Directional handles now appear on the icon, indicating you can tap a new location in which to move it. (No, you can't simply drag it.) To move an app to a folder, first create the folder using the Menu button's options, then long-tap the app icon, tap Move to Folder from the icon grid that appears, and choose the destination folder from the menu list. It's another example of not taking advantage of the touch UI on the Bold 9900.

Updating apps is similarly awkward. You have to open the BlackBerry App World app, then go to the My Apps pane. You'll see red text at the top indicating how many updates are available. For each app with an update available, the My Apps pane will display the text "Upgrade Available" beneath its name. Tap an app to open a new pane, then tap Upgrade to upgrade it. (No, you can't upgrade them all at once.) You then get a prompt a few seconds later letting you know you have an older version and are about to replace it. That's an unnecessary time waster when upgrading an app -- after all, the button says "Upgrade." Some apps even require a device reboot after installation. I can't recall ever having to do that in iOS or Android. As you can see, it's a very unfriendly process.

Location support.

The BlackBerry supports location detection via GPS and Wi-Fi signals. The BlackBerry comes with a navigation app from TomTom that can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. It's a serviceable app, but no more than that. What you don't get is the ability to selectively manage each app's access to your location information, as iOS provides. You are asked when installing an app for permission to use your location information, but that's it.

Web and Internet

Thanks to the crisp screen, the Web is usable on the BlackBerry Bold 9900. Unfortunately, you're effectively limited to using only mobile-optimized websites (such as InfoWorld.com) because you can see too little of a full-size website on the Bold's small screen. Also, zooming and scrolling on the Bold are often very slow, with blank areas appearing until the data is refreshed and reloaded.

BlackBerry OS 7 does have solid support for the evolving HTML5 standard. In the HTML5Test.com benchmarks, it scores 260 (out of 450 points), versus 230 for Android 4, 222 for Android 3, 184 for Android 2.3, and 141 for Windows Phone 7.5. But iOS 5 outperforms them all, scoring 296.

The BlackBerry browser has what you need in terms of capabilities: bookmarking, multiple windows, text selection and copying, image saving, and the ability to send the current URL to others via email, text message, or social networks. It's comparable to the browsers on Android and iOS (though with more sharing options than iOS provides). On a larger screen, such as on a BlackBerry Torch, you'd be more inclined to use the Web, even with its slow performance.

User Interface

The BlackBerry Bold 9900 assumes you want a traditional BlackBerry that happens to use a touch UI in visually oriented apps such as the browser, and its user interface continues to strongly favor the traditional BlackBerry approach of thumb-typing and menu selections. As noted multiple times in this review, it doesn't provide a great touch experience, nor does the device work equally well with just the keyboard and touchscreen.

RIM would argue that if you want an iPhone-like UI on a BlackBerry, you should get the BlackBerry Torch instead. I agree -- the BlackBerry Bold is designed to augment the traditional BlackBerry interface with touch, not convert it to touch. However, even in that narrow context, BlackBerry OS has unnecessary flaws.

Operational UI.

Typing numbers and special symbols on the BlackBerry's physical keyboard can result in hand-wrenching positions, and you need to use both thumbs, due to how the Shift key works. Entering numerals with regular text is particularly a pain. In settings screens, the position of the fields you are meant to complete are hard to accurately select when tapping on the screen; it's clear no one bothered to rework them for touch-based selection, even though that is faster when editing existing information.

As noted previously, the inconsistencies between touch-generated menus and Menu button-generated menus are confusing; fortunately, there's a Full option in each touch-generated menu that opens the Menu button's selections. I was also frustrated that BlackBerry OS 7 is inconsistent in making use of gestures, such as for zooming. Also as mentioned above, some actions take way too many steps, such as exiting a file attachment or updating apps.

On the BlackBerry Bold 9900, the screen is often hard to read -- ironic, given that its faithful users are typically men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are least able to read tiny text.

I also found myself accidentally pushing the BlackBerry's camera button a lot -- it's in the perfect position to be pressed unintentionally. You can disable it by setting it to Do Nothing via the Convenience Key setting.

Text Selection and Copying.

One area where BlackBerry OS 7 relies on touch is for text selection. You tap the target text for longer than a regular tap but shorter than a long-tap to display the text cursor, which you can then drag to the desired location. Note that a single letter is highlighted, suggesting that whole character is selected, but it's not. Instead, anything you type is inserted to the left of that character; deletes remove to its left as well. To select a range of text, tap two fingers simultaneously roughly around the text you want to select and two text handles will appear. Now drag one to the beginning of your text selection and the other to the end. You can cut or copy the text using the Menu button or by long-tapping the screen to get a grid of buttons; both methods provide the Cut and Copy options. It's not as elegant as the method in iOS or even Android, but it works.

One thing BlackBerry OS 7 could really use is an auto-correct feature for its email and other core apps as in iOS or an auto-suggest feature as in Android 4 -- it's very easy to mistype your text, but all the BlackBerry does to help you achieve correct spelling is ... well, nothing. It doesn't even indicate possible spelling errors.

Security and Management

The BlackBerry is known as the most secure and manageable mobile platform available. That's true, as long as you pony up for a BES license (there are free versions for small businesses). With BES, IT can apply more than 500 policies to convert the BlackBerry into a highly regulated appliance, covering everything from on-device encryption to camera usage, from interapplication permissions to access point connectivity. Of course, that's not what users want or find productive, so most have turned to iOS and Android, whose security and management is less intrusive and constrained, though sufficient for most organizations. Of course, there's no reason BES can't be applied in a constructive way.

Without BES, IT has no ability to secure or manage email, contacts, calendars, and apps in BlackBerry, nor the ability to remotely lock or wipe a BlackBerry device. Organizations that don't need BES's high level of control can't use native Exchange policies, as they can for iOS and Android 4.

BlackBerry OS 7 has on-device encryption turned on by default, with a higher level of encryption than on iOS or Android, so a locked device is much harder to crack, such as by a thief seeking corporate secrets who gets a hold of your CEO's BlackBerry. It also supports VPNs, though the setup is nightmarish. You have to know the brand of VPN hardware, for example, so IT will have to do the work for users. That's not the case in iOS. Similarly, to connect to a PEAP-encrypted Wi-Fi network, you have to know the certificate authority in use, which means IT again must do the work or share such secrets with employees. Again, iOS automates this setup without divulging such information to the user.

The bottom line is that BlackBerrys can be more highly secured, regulated, and managed, but it takes an active effort by IT to set up each device.

Conclusion

Many people are mourning the possible death of RIM, as its "BlackBerry reboot" effort to reinvent itself for the modern era has been delayed, its sales continue to shrink, and investors are getting desperate enough to seek a takeover (those rarely end well). Unfortunately, there's nothing in the BlackBerry Bold 9900 -- RIM's flagship device -- to buy RIM the time it needs.

The BlackBerry Bold is better than the previous BlackBerry 9700 in its integration of social networking, and it offers a better Web browser, beefier hardware, and the partial adoption of touch. But compared to every competing mobile OS, it's an awkward, uncompelling device. If you love the old-style BlackBerry, the Bold 9900 is your last chance to maintain the tradition. It's RIM's swan song to the BlackBerry heyday of the 2000s, not the triumphant comeback anthem RIM could really use.

This article, "BlackBerry Bold 9900: The swan song of a standard," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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This story, "BlackBerry Bold 9900: The Swan Song of a Standard" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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