Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I Will Never (Again) Own a BlackBerry

Now there’s an unusual post, considering the fact that over the last three years I have been writing about travel, Mark Knopfler concerts and general musings, often to readers’ dismay.


I purchased my first (and only) BlackBerry back in March 2009. That was about 3 years too late—I had always wanted to be email-available from the road, partly due to my occupation. So, on March 2009, I finally kissed my old 2G phone goodbye and decided to promote myself to a BlackBerry Bold 9000, switching carriers along the way (from Telus to Rogers, as I prefer GSM technology over CDMA/TDMA, mostly due to the ability to switch SIM cards when I travel).

I remember I was thrilled with my new purchase. Being able to communicate with the world while not sitting in front of my laptop… that was a new thing. With time, I came to realize that owning a smartphone is, essentially, owning an ad-hoc brain extension. Whatever information you wanted to have, at any point of time—you could have by virtue of hitting a few keys on the BlackBerry’s keyboard.

Also, I used to live in Waterloo, Ontario for about 8 years. Coincidentally, that is where Research in Motion—BlackBerry’s maker—is headquartered. In fact, RIM is one of Waterloo’s biggest employers: they own huge real estate in the city of Waterloo, hiring countless students on co-op terms (thereby contributing to Waterloo’s economy while reducing their products’ quality. What can you do. You always get what you pay for, and when you pay $11/hour for a student to resolve bugs in your operating system, you’re bound to fail) and carry the reputation of a great company to work for.

Two years and a half later, though, I am sitting in front of my computer, my BlackBerry lays down upon the desk looking as useless as it can be, and writing a blog post about why I am unlikely to ever own a BlackBerry again. Might be surprising to some, as I have been an avid BlackBerry user & advocate since the day I purchased one.

But the time comes when you just can’t take it any more, and the time has come. I thought maybe I should write something up, as food for thought for whoever is considering (or will be considering) buying a BlackBerry. Some lessons I had learned and disappointments I had experienced.


The Operating System

The first problem I have with BlackBerry is the company’s (RIM’s) policy and tradition of keeping their operating system (“BlackBerry OS”) up to date and bug-free. The BlackBerry OS is certainly not bug-free, and I certainly am not expecting it to be bug-free; but it just seems to me that the company doesn’t do enough in order to make its operating system stable.

Due to strange agreements between BlackBerry and mobile carriers—an agreement that end-users end up suffering from the most—the process of introducing fixes to the operating system is very complex, resulting in updates being available on an annual, or semi-annual basis at most. Each operating system version fixes a few issues and introduces new ones.

One of the issues that made me decide to get rid of my BlackBerry is a strange memory leak that started manifesting itself after I upgraded my operating system about one year ago. I have to reboot my phone once a day in order to keep it alive, and that is regardless of the number of applications I have installed on it. The operating system simply fails to clean after itself, resulting in the handset becoming unresponsive as the day goes by until you have to reboot it, or it reboots itself.

Now, who do you turn to when you have a problem like that? nobody. There really is no convenient way to report a problem and have it fixed. Call RIM? forget it. Prepare yourself for a long and expensive process of troubleshooting. Ask people online? sure, that’s free… as long as your time is worth nothing.

People seem to be reporting similar issues in online forums, but really nothing is being done to resolve operating system glitches. The only “solution” for one’s misery is to upgrade their phone, as new phones support newer operating systems. Well, that’s a very clever way for RIM to make money, I suppose.

BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS)

For a BlackBerry device to connect to the Internet—be it for email retrieval or web surfing—all communications must go through special servers. In layman’s terms: between your device and the universe of the Internet, there exists a “middleman”. Every data packet that leaves your BlackBerry, has to go through BlackBerry’s servers (hence, the “middleman”) before reaching its destination, and the same holds for the response you get from that destination.

One of the benefits of this “middleman” (at least that’s how RIM is marketing itself) is that the group of servers compresses data on-the-fly, thereby reducing the amount of data that is being transferred over the air. That’s why, with a BlackBerry, you can do much more with 1 megabyte of data than what you can do with another device (such as an iPhone).

That used to be a very important selling point. Data transport used to be very expensive a few years ago, but not anymore. Today, for example with Rogers, you can’t possibly get a data package that includes less than 500MB of data, and it costs pennies to get more data allotment.

So now that data is relatively cheap, other factors come into play that demonstrate that requiring that “middleman” is a huge pain the butt.

Outages

For a period of a few days in October 2011, BlackBerry users worldwide were left in the dark following a technical problem with RIM’s central servers. Apparently RIM wasn’t (and perhaps still isn’t) very serious about its infrastructure backup strategies, so a glitch in one data center made most BlackBerries in the world become as useful as bricks.

RIM’s response, as a company, was extremely disappointing. For days, it didn’t communicate about the problem at all, leaving users further in the dark with respect to what’s going on. When it was all over, they decided to reward people with $100 credit towards purchasing BlackBerry applications—an outrageous form of compensation, given the fact that BlackBerry’s applications are too expensive to begin with, plus they’re worth of shit.

It simply doesn’t make sense to have a “middleman” for data transport when it provides very little benefit while subjecting you to severe outage risks.

Roaming

Here comes the really big pain, which is, for the most part, responsible for my decision to leave the BlackBerry world once and for all.

In order to connect to the Internet, BlackBerry users must have access to BIS servers (those “middlemen” I had mentioned above). Right now, they get BIS access through their mobile providers—for example, I get mine through Rogers.

Now lets say that you own a BlackBerry device and you need to get roaming. You get on an airplane, and nine hours later arrive at The Netherlands. You turn on your BlackBerry.

From there on, you are no longer on your local network (Rogers in my case). You are a guest on a different network (in The Netherlands, for example, KPN, Vodafone and T-Mobile are very popular).

Thereafter—regardless of the phone you use, not just a BlackBerry—you are subject to roaming rates on everything you do with your phone. The rates you’re paying are predetermined by your mobile carrier at home and are divided between voice rates (calls you make), text rates (for SMS messages you send and/or receive) and data rates (per kilobyte of data being sent by your phone and received by it). You can purchase all sorts of “roaming packages” from your mobile carrier at home, to sweeten the pill; but still we’re talking about a lot of money.

For example, consider Rogers in Canada. If you don’t get any data roaming package, you will pay 3 cents per kilobyte of data usage. That’s $30 per megabyte. My monthly usage is about 80 MB; that amounts to about $2,400 a month. With data roaming packages, prices drop by as much as 80%, so the $2,400 can be lowered to $480. This still is a lot of money.

So now comes the fun part. The savvy traveller might say—heck, I’m in Europe; I’ll just go ahead and buy a local SIM card, put it in my BlackBerry, top it up (using a pre-paid payment scheme) and there I go, surfing the net in local rates.

And therein lies the problem. The vast majority of mobile carriers internationally, while being very happy to provide you with a SIM card that has data functionality on it, will be unable to provide you with access to their BIS servers (the “middlemen”), unless you sign a contract with them. Why? because the mobile carrier’s BIS servers cost them money and they can’t come up with a pre-paid pricing model that will make it effective for them.

The only company I found that will provide you with BIS access on a pre-paid basis is Orange in the UK. That, however, is only useful if you travel in the UK. Anywhere else, you’re screwed.

If, instead of a BlackBerry, you get a smartphone that doesn’t require a “middleman”, then you’re home free. You save hundreds of dollars on roaming fees, and are welcome to surf the net through your phone in local rates.

So, apparently this issue has been bothering people for ages. RIM listened, and a few years ago they came up with a plan to resolve the issue. Instead of subscribers having to be hosted on mobile carriers’ BIS servers, the subscribers will be able to get BIS services directly from RIM. In such a scheme, you don’t need any favour from the foreign mobile carrier in order to get onto their BIS servers; all you need is data connectivity, and your pre-existing account with RIM will ensure you get BIS access everywhere.

Sounds fantastic… however RIM, to this day, hasn’t done ANYTHING about it. That goes in line with RIM’s ongoing policy of completely ignoring their customers’ needs.

RIM started as a company that caters to businesses; the first BlackBerries were used in the corporate market, and only after iPhone started wreaking havoc in the consumer market, RIM decided to show some presence outside the corporate world. They have failed, and they are still failing—not only because of being technologically behind (which they certainly are. Compare the latest iPhone and the latest BlackBerry), but mostly because RIM hasn’t fully adopted the “consumer” thinking yet.

Applications

BlackBerry App world.

An operating system providing the facilities to create mediocre applications at most. And the next generation (QNX) may only shine due to its ability to run Android applications… using an emulator.

Need I say more?


Goodbye RIM. It’s been nice… to an extent. I’m moving to Android.

Isaac

3 comments:

dee said...

sniff, sniff..a moving story of a broken relationship.
all the best for your next cellular-marriage, wishing you no divorce soon.

Isaac said...

I know Dee.
Who would have believed... After the time we spent looking for that holster. :-)

Ethan said...

Just a note - all of the carriers in the Middle East and North Africa have had pre-paid blackberry service for a long time. It's cheap for the most part - in Saudi Arabia it's about $26/month for unlimited SMS & BBM, 150 min talk, and 1gb data.