The modern world of smartphones
is rapidly evolving, to say the least. And this fact has never been clearer to me than when CrackBerry Kevin and the other SPE
folks recently undertook their yearly Smartphone Round Robin
which is now winding down -- so many great devices, each with its own cutting-edge features and functionality, some of which didn't even exist just a year ago (fyi - Kevin tells me his Back on the Bold
final review is coming tomorrow and the grand prize winners will be announced Thursday!). The SPE boys (and girl!) and their toys really got me thinking that it's time for RIM to not only step up to the plate with regards to the BlackBerry OS, but to hit one (way) out of the park -- at least if the company wants to continue competing with Apple, Microsoft, Palm, Google and the other handset heavies.
RIM didn't exactly play the slouch in 2008. In fact, the company released the first official versions of BlackBerry handheld OS versions 4.5, 4.6 and 4.7-with the addition of such great features as full HTML e-mail support and built-in Docs to Go document viewing and editing software from DataViz. At least four brand-new devices were also released, including the Bold 9000, Pearl Flip 8220, Storm 95xx and Curve 8900.
However, despite the introduction of some very interesting new hardware, none of RIM's new software was truly revolutionary; each new version was really a simple evolution of a previous BlackBerry OS.
With companies like Palm raising the bar due to unique devices like the Pre, and groundbreaking operating systems, such as the brand new Palm webOS, RIM can no longer afford not to wow us. What follows are nine suggestions for new Blackberry OS features, or enhanced functionality, that would better position RIM to reclaim its title as Smartphone King. (Note: I solicited feedback and commentary for this article via Twitter, and as such, specific ideas are attributed to their rightful originators. My suggestions are also in reverse order; I'm saving the best for last.)
WANTED: NINE BLACKBERRY OS TWEAKS IN 2009
9) Arriba BlackBerry, Arriba! Faster Startup/Reboot Process
If you're anything like me, the battery in your BlackBerry device gets removed roughly once a day-sometimes much more frequently, depending on whether or not you recently installed a new app or service. Then there are the soft resets whenever I delete an app and need to reboot or just want to refresh my device's memory.
Each and every time you remove your BlackBerry battery or initialize a soft reset-via the ALT + Right Shift + Delete shortcut on full QWERTY devices or otherwise-your BlackBerry reboots. The problem's that the BlackBerry startup/reboot process takes FOREVER. It's a personal pet peeve of my mine, and I'd be willing to bet I'm not the only one who has this grievance.
My iPhone literally takes less than a quarter of the time that my BlackBerry needs to reboot. I realize that this process is likely related to hardware as well as software, but come on, RIM. Reward our patience with a speedier reboot time, why don't you? We all deserve it.
8) A Lil' Microsoft Love-or at Least Tolerance: Better Exchange, ActiveSync Integration
I won't get into much detail here, as this suggestion is strictly business-oriented, but many high-end smartphones, such as the iPhone and some Nokia devices, now fully support Microsoft ActiveSync, which lets users sync their devices with PC-based Microsoft apps and services without the need for additional software like BlackBerry Desktop Manager.
RIM's clearly a Microsoft competitor, but its BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) software already works hand-in-hand with Microsoft's Exchange Server so BlackBerry corporate users can receive Outlook mail via RIM's trusted "push" delivery service and more. So why no ActiveSync support built into the BlackBerry OS? (Jack Nork, director of client resources, with Retail Optimization Inc., a retail sales consultancy, also reinforced this suggestion via Twitter.)
7) BlackBerry Clean Up: Tidy Up Those Advanced Menus
One of my favorite things about the BlackBerry OS is how packed it is with shortcuts, tips and tricks and personal customization options. However, I think it's safe to say that I'm just a bit more "tech-savvy" than your average BlackBerry user-writing about gadgets and other mobile technologies is, after all, my full-time job. And all the menus available throughout the BlackBerry OS, namely within Options, are very likely intimidating and unnecessary for most BlackBerry users, especially non-business users.
As CrackBerry moderator Bla1ze (@Videos4BB on Twitter ) pointed out when I collected input for this article, many of the BlackBerry OS advanced menus could be hidden by removing those options from wherever they currently live and "burying" them within an advanced keyboard shortcut-ALT + C, B, C, B, for instance.
I think this is a great idea, as it wouldn't do away with any existing functionality, but could help to make what can be an intimidating device to newbie BlackBerry users a bit less daunting.
6) Enhanced Device Control via BlackBerry Task Manager
There are already a number of ways to determine which applications are active on your device at any given time, including via the application switcher ribbon, but figuring out which apps are using the most BlackBerry resources, why, and then quickly quitting them, if necessary, isn't as simple.
Sure, you can fire up BlackBerry Desktop Manager and whip out that clunky calculator for some arithmetic, or bang out the ol' ALT + Left Shift + H shortcut to see your total memory vs. free memory. But I'd much rather have access to a simple task manager, like the one used in both Windows and Mac OS X. It could be invoked via an advanced keyboard shortcut-ALT + T, M, T, M, for example. And such a task manager could incorporate some of the functionality of the current BlackBerry Safe Mode, which is built into RIM device running OS v4.6, to help identify and eliminate problem apps.
5) Bulk Up That Toolbox: Give Us a "Location-Aware" To-Do List, Advanced Alarms
I simply do not get along with many of the default tools that ship with the current BlackBerry OS. RIM's Tasks and Alarm apps are perfect examples of this lack of compatibility.
The default BlackBerry Tasks app that ships with all new RIM smartphones is about as useful to me as a SureType keyboard without the corresponding text-prediction software. I've tried using the app on numerous occasions in the past to no avail, as it always seems like more trouble than it's worth.
For quite some time now, I've pondered the Tasks app and which features could make it truly valuable to me, and I keep coming back to GPS-based, location functionality. Obviously, internal GPS or at least a Bluetooth puck would be required, but that shouldn't be much of an issue, as the vast majority of RIM's new devices-with the exception of the Pearl 8220-have GPS built-in anyway.
Just imagine the potential value of a location-aware Tasks app: It could remind you to stop at the dry cleaners to pick up your good suit, just before you drive by the shop; the next time you visit the supermarket, the task manager could remind you that you're supposed to collect the fixings for that night's fajita dinner; or it could notify you when you're about to drive-by the mall, where your girlfriend's waiting to be picked up. The possibilities are endless, really.
I'm also not a big fan of RIM's Alarm app, though the improvements introduced in BlackBerry OS 4.6 were a big step in the right direction. I appreciate RIM's addition of advanced functionality like the new Bedside Mode and a stop-watch feature; however, the app could be infinitely more valuable if it included alarm "profiles," or settings that let you program specific alarm options for each day of the week.
For example, I was lucky enough to recently attend CES-as well as record a CrackBerry podcast there with Kevin and a few members of the CrackBerry.com team. I would have loved to be able to pre-program unique alarm settings for each day in Vegas, as my schedule varied greatly. I needed to be awake by 6 am my first morning, 7:30 on the second day and 8:45 on the third. And as such, I had to change my alarm settings every evening. An alarm app with "profiles" would've allowed me to set specific alert times for each day, saving me the completely unnecessary stress of remembering to set a different alarm time each day.
(Note: I'm well aware that there's no shortage of third-party alarm apps with much more functionality and customization options than RIM's alarm, but why should I have to pay for another alarm app when one comes with my device? RIM ought to take a few pages from the books of those other app makers and deliver a quality default Blackberry alarm.)
4) Overhauled Multimedia Experience: We Want the "Funnest" BlackBerry Yet!
RIM has clearly made a push in recent years to embrace consumer smartphone users, with the introduction of devices, apps and services designed specifically for the masses, as opposed to products built strictly for businesspeople.
One of the key components to a successful consumer smartphone experience is the ability to easily acquire, install and consume multimedia content, like music and video in the form of television shows and movies.
RIM's default multimedia player has come a long way in a relatively short period of time--the Pearl 8100, which hit the United States in the fall of 2006 was the first RIM device to feature a full-fledged media player-but it's still got a ways to go before it can even hope to replace the iPhone as my main media player.
That's really due to the lack of one critical part of RIM's multimedia strategy: a central hub for purchasing and downloading BlackBerry-optimized content. The recently launched BlackBerry Application Center and Application Storefront, which is due in March, will certainly help RIM and its wireless carrier partners distribute approved BlackBerry software. But there's currently no "official" way to download music and video files that are meant specifically for BlackBerrys. (Owners of Verizon's BlackBerry Storm might be familiar with the carrier's V Cast Music/Rhapsody app, but my experience with this service has been dismal. However, that's a different blog post altogether...)
iPhone users have iTunes and the iTunes store, and though some of us may not "appreciate" Apple's stance on DRM and other issues, you've got to admit, iTunes is a hell of a lot better than RIM's multimedia distribution channels-or lack thereof. There are plenty of relatively simple ways to convert video into BlackBerry-friendly formats- just ask Bla1ze -but your average consumer's nowhere near tech-savvy enough to mess with third-party conversion program just to watch an episode of 30 Rock.
RIM needs to get its act together on the multimedia front, with either a new desktop music app that integrates with some sort of BlackBerry-specific content provider, or at least offer (much) better iTunes/Amazon MP3/etc. integration.
3) Yowzers, What a Poor Browser: Revamp That BlackBerry Browser!
RIM's BlackBerry browser has long been the butt of many jokes in the smartphone world. That's because even though RIM has nearly mastered e-mail management on its handhelds, it's light-years behind other mobile software manufacturers when it comes to Web browsing.
The BlackBerry browser is awkward to use; doesn't render pages all that well, especially when compared to the iPhone's Safari browser; and it's relatively slow, among other complaints. Worst of all, it's required to perform various tasks, including installing most third-party apps onto Blackberry devices.
I'm not saying that RIM should straight out copy Apple's work on the iPhone's browser, but it needs to do something. As it is, I use Opera Mini 99 percent of the time I surf the Web via BlackBerry, and there's also a new browser on the BlackBerry-block, called Bolt, which means RIM smartphone users now have one more option to help avoid the BlackBerry browser.
And if RIM just can't come up with a better browser, for whatever reason, it should at least let us download apps via other browsers-and even, wait for it...let us set another third-party app as the DEFAULT browser. Something tells me I won't be seeing this last request any time soon, but a CrackBerry addict can dream, right?
2) Redefined Multitasking, System-Wide Search: Palm webOS-esque Innovation
The device drawing the most attention in the smartphone space right now is probably Palm's recently unveiled Pre, which runs the company's new OS, Palm webOS. That's for a couple of reason, not the least of which is the plain fact that it has been six years since Palm last released a refreshed mobile OS, and observers are still trying to decide whether any piece of software, no matter how impressive, will be enough to revive the struggling handset maker.
Regardless, the Pre is catching a lot of eyes, and rightly so: The Palm webOS is remarkably innovative and original. I have two favorite Palm webOS features right now, though I've only spent an hour or so with the device. The first is the software's approach to multitasking, or performing multiple actions simultaneously. The second is the system-wide search feature that can scan your entire device for search queries at any given time, instead of searching only a section of your device, or a single database, and requiring multiple searches to fully explore your smartphone. The Pre feature is not unlike the Spotlight found in Apple's Mac OS X.
To make a long description short, the Pre handles multitasking by enabling users to rapidly open and close apps and services from anywhere, at any time, by simply swiping a finger to display new app options and tapping them to open. And "closing" or doing away with open apps is just as simple; one finger swipe brings up active apps in the form of "cards" that can be shuffled through or swiped off of the top of the display to close them.
Multitasking on current BlackBerrys is similar in that you can bring up the App Switcher from any screen via using a convenience key to see which apps are open and to gain quick access to them. But exiting apps requires a tap of the menu button, as well as a scroll and click of the trackball to find the appropriate option and select it. And opening new apps means a trip back to your home/icon screen. RIM would do well to implement some sort of similar approach to multitasking.
After seeing the Palm Pre's system-wide search function in action, I realized that every single smartphone OS should have something like it, especially the BlackBerry OS, my favorite mobile OS. It's extremely simple, yet could be invaluable to users. In fact, I'm a bit surprised this is only now just debuting, as the benefits of such boundary-free search seem obvious in retrospect.
Since, I don't want RIM to merely clone the Palm webOS functionality, I'll take my suggested feature one step further. I'd love to see RIM not only implement a new, Palm webOS-esque search function, I want the company to extend that functionality to add "intelligent" troubleshooting. So, for instance, if you're having an issue tethering to a PC, you could type "how to tether" and the system would return a variety of information, including RIM's existing online Help page on the subject, plus a Set-Up-Wizard-like tutorial to walk you through the process of resolving your problem. And if you're still unable to work through the issue, the troubleshooting service could collect a variety of related device diagnostics, such as whether or not a wireless network is available and if you've correctly configured a new connection on your PC, and deliver additional possible fixes based on that information.
1) The BlackBerry Dilemma: No Saving Apps to External Memory Cards
Currently there's no official way to save and backup BlackBerry applications to a media card; RIM smartphone users are forced to save apps to their devices' built-in storage space.
This is without a doubt one of my most significant gripes with RIM's BlackBerry OS. It not only means that I cannot backup my apps on a media card to ensure that I don't lose them while performing a system upgrade or other potentially damaging process; but the inability to save applications to a media card also means that the total space I'm afforded for storing my collection of apps-which, I assure you, is vast-is strictly limited to the amount of space left in my device's "on-board" memory. In fact, BlackBerry users are not only restricted to on-board memory for applications, they're restricted to on-board application memory, which offers even less storage space-for RIM's current devices, it's somewhere in the range of 128MB (Storm and Bold) to 256MB (Curve 8900). Consider that this application memory is also where your OS is installed and things like your inbox and browser cache take up space and in reality you're left with around 30-40 megs on the Bold/Storm for apps and just over 100 on the Curve 8900.
The BlackBerry OS itself along with another chunk of core system software is also stored within the on-device application memory. So while modern BlackBerry smartphones like the Storm have as much as 1GB of on-board memory and support external microSDHC cards up to 32GB, users really have much, MUCH less app storage space. And when that app space is filled, you're out of luck: You can either delete apps to add more; deal with a poorly performing BlackBerry that needs more memory to run efficiently; or simply forget about new apps. And that sucks.
Other smartphone owners aren't affected by similar restraints; when you buy a 16GB iPhone 3G, you can't expand your total available memory via media card, but you can store whatever you want on the device, be it all music, video, applications or a mixture of all three. To add some perspective here, consider that a number of existing iPhone apps, namely games, are already upwards of 100MB in size (there's one out there over a gig!), meaning you could store only one or two of these large apps on your BlackBerry smartphone.
RIM should lift its constraints on saving applications to media cards, so we can all do whatever we please with both our built-in and external memory sources-especially since the company plans to soon release its own "App Storefront," which will only make it easier for BlackBerry users to max out their devices' app memory.
(Thanks go to the venerable Rene Ritchie, of TheiPhoneBlog.com, Robert Losch, of CoffeeDharma.com, and CrackBerry Kevin of this site for helping me flesh out this suggestion.).
What did I forget? There's no way I could possibly include all of the suggestions that I have to better RIM's BlackBerry OS, so I picked what I thought were my best options. I'm sure some of you have more exciting-and plausible--ideas than any of those mentioned above. So by all means, share 'em right here. I can tell you from experience that RIM has ears everywhere, and I assure you it's listening right now. So don't be shy with suggestions, comments, and/or complaints. You never know; an idea posted here on CrackBerry.com could eventually find its way into a future BlackBerry OS.