On the Fate of RIM (Maker of BlackBerry Products) and my New PlayBook Tablet

It seems like every FOSS enthusiast has a soft spot for some proprietary software, whether it’s Google phones or browsers, Apple mobile devices, or Lenovo notebook computers. My soft spot is for BlackBerry products.

My BlackBerry odyssey began in 2006 when I started attending university practically next door to RIM’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Back then, they were still an enterprise-oriented company, and a rising star. I didn’t get my first device until 2008, when I chose it for technological reasons: I wanted encrypted email, calendaring, and messaging. Also, at this point the iPhone had yet to make it big and Android didn’t exist.

When my mobile phone contract expired mid-way through 2011, I knew I wanted another BlackBerry device, but by then we were well into the period where virtually everybody has turned their back on RIM in favour of (usually) Apple devices and the occasional Android one. Worse still, I already knew of the still-upcoming devices running a QNX-based operating system programmed in C, rather than the current Java-powered one. Long story short, I was able to get my hands on a Java-based device for free.

So here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for: RIM is not dying, they’re being killed.

Everybody who pays attention has heard all the anti-RIM sentiments out there in North American mass media nowadays. In fact, they aren’t even cited as facts any more because everybody “just knows.” Here are some other facts that I’ve read in various places but won’t bother to cite (for my own lazinesss):

  1. RIM will still report a profit for this financial year.
  2. BlackBerry devices are still very popular in consumer markets that aren’t North America.
  3. There was a riot when the new “Bold” model was released in Indonesia. Think the style of the riot recently in the United States where people were killed while trying to buy Nike-brand shoes.
  4. The RIM “BlackBerry Internet Service” servers are statistically more reliable than virtually all Internet services (Google, Facebook, etc.). Even in the outage that occurred in the fall of 2011, most customers (myself included) didn’t even notice the service outage, and reportedly no emails or messages were lost–just delayed. Sure, the BIS happened to have all of its outage at one time, but in the past 10 years or so, this two-day outage was the only one ever (to my knowledge… and that of some article I read somewhere).
  5. Virtually no mass-media article about any RIM product has even approached neutrality since about July 2011. At least in “The Globe and Mail,” every article since October has recounted *all* of the company’s troubles in the past several months, whether or not they are relevant to the event being discussed.
  6. RIM was called to England on account of how BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), the company’s secure messaging service, helped in organizing the protests in London over the summer. Twitter and Facebook were also represented. What about Apple, Google, and Amazon? Surely there are quite a number of active BBM users in England.

What do I think is going on here? I don’t know why, but North American media outlets have decided to kill RIM. Predictably, most people where I live or have lived (Montreal, Toronto, Waterloo) are fine with it, and often endorse it. Yet when they move from dumb-phones to smartphones, people I know are choosing BlackBerry about as often as an Android or iOS device.

I’d also like to point out how dumb it is that millions of Canadians seem to want to kill the only internationally-visible Canadian technology company in favour of the American technology oligarchy. But hey, we don’t live in Canada any more–at least, our government isn’t called the “Canadian Government” but the “Harper Government,” so I guess if it’s Harper’s choice of how the Canadian media is allowed to refer to my government, then it should be Harper’s choice of how to ruin my country. He’s doing it by selling my country’s assets to international business-people, and killing RIM will help that goal.

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As an enthusiast, I was immediately intrigued by RIM’s “PlayBook” tablet computer. When it was released in April 2011, it was basically the only competitor to the Apple iPad. The situation is very different at the end of 2011, of course. Now, I’m not trying to irrationally defend RIM, so I have to agree with the general portrayal of the PlayBook: RIM screwed it up in a big way, several times, and continues to do so. If you want to learn how, read that elsewhere… it’s easy to find.

So why did I want a PlayBook tablet? I wasn’t about to pay $500 for something from a company that was about to collapse, had major bugs in the operating system, and virtually no apps available. Then several things changed: the PlayBook went on sale for $300 off, I realized RIM isn’t going to collapse, they fixed the major bugs, and the NDK (Native Development Kit… in C language, not HTML5 or re-packaged Android) was released with quite a number of open-source development libraries, including ones used by software I use often. There are, unfortunately, still virtually no apps available, in comparison to other platforms. Plus, when PlayBook OS 2 is released, it will have support for easily-ported Android apps and (I think) be able to connect directly to the BlackBerry Internet Service.

Here’s my review:

I’ve used the device for about two weeks, and it doesn’t do everything I hoped, but it does some things that I hadn’t envisioned. I still don’t know what it’s going to be like to take notes with it during my seminars, but it’s certainly going to be useful for bringing and reading PDF versions of books and articles that I’ve scanned from the library. Much more handy than taking all the books!

I feel like I’ve been using it for things that I previously wouldn’t have done. Nothing big, just typical tablet things: reading the news, watching online videos, listening to online music, checking Facebook and Twitter, and so on. I was initially allured by the ability to use Bluetooth to pair my BlackBerry phone with the PlayBook, then access the phone apps on the tablet. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Messenger app is basically unusable because it doesn’t sync properly. Some received messages never register as “read,” so the notifications area keeps telling me I have unread messages, even when I’ve read them many times. Also, there is sometimes considerable lag after I send a message. The email, calendar, and contacts apps don’t seem to be affected. The Bluetooth connection is fairly powerful: I can leave my phone in a central place and walk around with the tablet without a noticable decrease in performance.

In two weeks, it’s never crashed, I’ve never had to restart it because of a software bug, the OS-level commands are always responsive (even when a particular app has frozen), the graphics are impressive, the screen is bright, the device is robust (I’ve dropped it in ways I shouldn’t have), it stays charged for days, the on-screen keyboard is surprisingly easy to use, the cameras work well and the speakers sound surprisingly good and are loud enough, there are a handful of cool music apps (I hope to add some more), the user interface reacts in predictable ways, and the browser has yet to fail me on a web page (unlike the phone version).

At first, I had problems getting the touch screen to react how I wanted, but now I never have problems. Having never owned a touch-screen device before this one, I chalk it up to lack of experience. Also, the 7-inch size is perfect for me… it’s big enough to see things, but small enough that I can carry it securely with one hand.

With this whole rant/post in mind, the one thing I cannot answer for is games. I generally don’t have time to play games, and when I do I want a real computer (for FreeCiv!) So… read another review for that.

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5 Comments

  1. No, really, RIM is dying. The reason all their press is negative is that they’ve been fucking everything up for at least three years.

    They really have all the same problems as Nokia: the only reason they look like they’re still doing okay is momentum from previous success. It should have been entirely clear to both Nokia and RIM in 2008 that they needed an OS and app ecosystem able to compete with iOS and Android, and they both utterly and completely butchered it. _Completely_. Nokia at least managed to write something vaguely compelling, but too late, and then decided to stab it in the back at the last minute. RIM, by all accounts, _still_ hasn’t written anything even close to being able to compete with where iOS and Android were three years ago.

    There’s exactly two reasons anyone buys a Blackberry any more, and they are 1) BBM and 2) slow-moving corporate policies. 1 is being gradually rendered irrelevant by competition like WhatsApp, and even slow-moving corporate policies move _eventually_. Like Nokia’s, RIM’s market share is on a practically irreversible downward trend; the fact that it’s still in absolute terms quite large really doesn’t matter, when it’s painfully clear to any observer that it’s only going to go down, and they have palpably demonstrated that they have no idea how to fix that.

  2. You should *never* ever run the software installed by the vendor. *Always* replace it with a FLOSS distribution like Mer, Fedora, Debian, Gentoo or other community run distribution.

  3. Re #2 RIM/Blackberry popular outside of the US? In Europe I only see a massive decline in Blackberry usage. People actually say they feel sorry for others who still use a Blackberry. Blackberry is still popular with teens apparently because of ping. Everybody else uses iPhone/Android and WhatsApp (and some sms). I have used iPhone and Android phones (currently a Nexus S with ICS) and even the latest Blackberry feels very dated. Also this whole “but my mail is secure because it is encrypted” is hogwash. RIM can read your email and those scary US laws will certainly give the men in black access to your supposedly secure mail that supposedly nobody can read. Just use self-signed certificates with client certificate authentication between ActiveSync on an iPhone or Android smartphone and for example a Zarafa server with Z-Push and for sure that nobody can read your email without you knowing it. Seems many in corporate IT are waking up to that reality and take steps to cut RIM out of the loop by moving to Android smartphones or iPhone.

    Yes, RIM once was something that Canada could be proud of. Unfortunately that no longer seems the case. Time for a change at the top.

  4. Yes, its true, US-press supports only Apple and Android and – despite of the >2% market share, WP7.
    Nokia, which still owns a 20% share throughout the world was killed already – Symbian is pronounced dead despite of its share, and MeeGo never really made into the market (and Nokias stuff WAS in fact FOSS).
    That is also what Jonathan Zittrain says – the future of the internet will be controlled through three mayor US companies through their influence on the corresponding app stores, and through upcoming technologies like TCPA which will possibly limit the ability of free OS choice and control on hardware.
    Given the fact that media is controlled by adverts and adverts are paid by the major companys, there are hard times comming up for FOSS and individual phone manufactures.

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