The BlackBerry Storm is Verizon’s Vietnam

You’re probably sick of hearing me complain about how the iPhone is only available on the craptacular AT&T network and therefore not available to North Dakotans, and I don’t blame you. Hell, I’m sick of hearing me complain about it.

But it didn’t have to be this way. Verizon, in perhaps the dumbest business move of the decade, rejected the chance to be exclusive iPhone provider before Apple passed the opportunity to AT&T, who obviously accepted. I’m sure it seemed like a good move at the time – Steve Jobs demanded a lot more than any other handset maker ever had before, and Verizon, control freak that it is, didn’t want to give that sort of leverage to a vendor.

So, at the moment, the four big carriers have aligned themselves with the four premiere smartphone makers for their flagship phones:

  • AT&T – Apple iPhone
  • Sprint – Palm Pre
  • T-Mobile – G1 (Google’s first Android-based handset)
  • Verizon – BlackBerry Storm

Of those four, the iPhone is the clear leader. The first-generation Pre has been considered a mild success in the month it’s been available, and the T-Mobile G1 has been doing alright, given the limited reach of the T-Mobile network.

The clear loser is the BlackBerry Storm – the Verizon-exclusive “iPhone killer” that was launched at the end of November last year. It was universally considered to be a disaster, with bad review after bad review and rumors of a 35-50% return rate. The main reason is simple: A BlackBerry without a physical keyboard is not really a BlackBerry. However, there are also other, deeper problems the BlackBerry platform in general.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still consider my BlackBerry Pearl 8130 the best phone I’ve owned, and the soon-to-be-released BlackBerry Tour 9630 is apparently Research in Motion’s the best handset yet. Still, as nice as the hardware is, the Blackberry operating system screams legacy. The Storm made this blindingly obvious with its kludgy touchscreen interface tacked onto a software stack that has always assumed the presence of a physical keyboard.

Just the other day, The Boy Genius Report pretty much nailed the problem in a post titled “What happened to Research In Motion and where are they going?“:

You have to look at the big picture here… for what RIM is working with (an incredibly miserable Java OS with so much security and encryption and smoke-blowing APIs) they’ve hit the jackpot. Their OS architecture is fantastic, their use of security is what makes them so trustworthy. But, as each handset release comes closer and closer, people start to see the bigger picture. And that’s the fact that RIM’s OS is more than antiquated, it’s borderline laughable. But it works, you’re thinking, so what’s wrong? I’ve been saying this for years, but it wasn’t designed to do anything the BlackBerry does now. Imagine scotch taping car parts to a 200hp engine and see how far that gets you. Obviously, it’s just a viciously rough metaphor, but we believe a correct one.

I believe it’s a correct one too. The first BlackBerry was released 10 years ago. A lot has changed since then, but the latest and greatest RIM phones are built on a foundation that is decade old. The BlackBerry is a smartphone, but it’s not in the same class as the iPhone, Pre, or even the Andriod handsets. A few examples:

  • The web browser is slow and antiquated compared to the WebKit-based browsers available on the iPhone, Pre, and G1
  • The others were designed from the ground-up with multi-touch in mind; the BlackBerry was not, and assumes you’ve got a physical keyboard
  • Finding, installing, and managing applications is a mess, to put it nicely. The release of the BlackBerry App World a couple of months ago does ease this problem, but there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed until it dream of being compared to Apple’s App Store.
  • Application quality and user interface design are all over the place, from unremarkable to inspired.
  • The fact that you need to pull and replace the battery to reboot an unresponsive or slow BlackBerry is embarrassing for a modern smartphone

These problems are not unique to BlackBerry on Verizon, but because the carrier is currently so closely aligned with RIM for smartphone sales, it is largely their problem. In the short-term, I think RIM needs emphasize on applications by working out the issues with App World and by establishing some user interface guidelines for developers in order to raise the quality of apps. In the long-term, I imagine that if Research in Motion wants to survive, they will need to scrap the current BlackBerry OS and build something new, similar to what Apple did with Mac OS X and what Palm did with the Pre’s webOS.

The answer for Verizon is much easier. They need to get Apple, Palm, or one of the Android handset makers on board to start offering more choices to its customers. The Palm Pre is the obvious one to be available on Verizon first, since it’s already built and running on similar wireless technology used by Sprint. There are no technological limitations of the Android OS that I know of that would prevent it from being used on Verizon phone, so I expect to see some of those in the near future, too.

That, of course, leaves the iPhone. It’s appearance on Verizon is solely up to Apple, who may choose to stick with AT&T for the foreseeable future, or eventually break with the exclusive provider model and offer it to other carriers.

All I know is, if they ever do offer an iPhone for Verizon, AT&T is in big, big trouble.

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