Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A business Executive's Review Blackberry Z10

The Gadget Guys
Most reviews I have read from tech analysts have been along the lines of "pretty good, but don't buy it", "Too little, too late", "Nice but not enough to convert non Blackberry users", "Poor app selection" and so on. 

Here are some typical snippets:

BB10 simply doesn't offer many competitive advantages that would take me away from the other platformsBrad Molen  Engadget

Simply isn't enough here to woo those consumers who have already made investments in Android or iOS.  Too little Maybe. Too late? Sadly Tim Stevens Engadget

It’s not going to trounce the iPhone and Android, but it has a shot at re-establishing itself as a scrappy underdog with a viable platform. Even that would count as a surprise comeback for a company that so many have written off for so long Harry McCracken Times

It’s very tough to build a phone from scratch, starting with the operating system, crafting the user interface, and picking the right path for app development and support. There were plenty of different paths for Research In Motion to take, and I do kind of question the one that the company ultimately chose. - by Jonathan S. Geller BGR

If you're already a BlackBerry user, you'll love the Z10. Everyone else will be taking a step backwards by missing out on the great app and content ecosystems found in iOS and Android.  - Steve Kovach, Business Insider

These days, excellence in a smartphone isn't enough. Microsoft's phone is terrific, too, and nobody will touch it. So then: Is the delightful BlackBerry Z10 enough to save RIM? Honestly? It could go either way. But this much is clear: RIM is no longer an incompetent mess—and its doom is no longer a sure thing. -- By 

These analysts do represent a demographic of gadget users whose criteria and requirements for a good mobile experience are quite similar to each other and do not necessarily represent all demographic segments. They may think they do, but from reading their reviews, their gadget and other biases come though pretty clearly. Some certainly more than others. These people I believe look at all aspects of what a phone offers from messaging, social media, app selection, camera quality, hardware quality and so on. They don't necessarily look at how phones can meet and satisfy specialized needs or more accurately don't give much credence to the importance of it. I would like to offer a review of the product from the perceptive of a business executive. I may not be a typical representative of my sector, but I do offer a different view nonetheless. I am a CTO of a small but multinational software firm called B Sharp Technologies . I work part of the year in Colombo, Sri Lanka and other part in Toronto, Canada.

Firstly, Let's try then to interpret what the analysts above are saying. All of them except David Pogue say that the Z10 does not knock the socks off the competition in any department, even though they pretty much all agree that the Z10 is a good product. David Pogue on the other hand indicates that the Z10 has some really compelling stuff that the others don't have, but he still questions whether it really matters. The old Beta vs. VHS argument.

Before I go ahead with my analysis of the product, let me tell you what mobile devices I use and my frame of reference when comparing mobile products. My phone for the past 9 months for all daily functions was a Samsung Galaxy S3 and I used it an awful lot, until last week. Before that I had the Blackberry 9700. For my tablet I use the Google Nexus 7 and before that I had the first generation iPad. I am also well versed in the iOS 6 user interface as I have an iPOD touch which I use a lot. I have never used a Windows Phone, so I will leave it well alone when comparing products. From what I have read though, I believe the Windows phone and the Z10 are more similar to each other than either of them are to the Kings (Android and iOS devices). I got my Z10 just over a week ago and I have been using it every day since.

Not So Special
I will agree with most analysts on some the features that do not significantly differentiate the Z10 from the Kings. These features are:
Hardware, Camera, Aesthetics,  Keyboard, Speed, Voice quality, Browser speed, Audio, Video quality and Battery life.

A lot is being made of the Z10 virtual keyboard and just about all the analysts agree that it is one of the Z10's strongest features. While I do agree that it is good, I don't consider it a major differentiating feature. The Apple keyboard I agree is pretty basic and so is its predictive and auto corrective functionality but I don't think it will take them much to get there. The Android's stock keyboard is much better than Apple's and improves with every iteration (I had Android 4.1.1 on my Galaxy S3) but still not ready for prime time.  Nevertheless third party Android vendors have always offered superior keyboards apps such as Swiftkey 3. I used that and it was superb. The blackberry keyboard may have a slicker way of handling the predictive suggestions and multiple languages, but I don't it consider something I would leave the Galaxy for.

A lot also has also been made of the Z10's time shift feature of the camera. Well its a nice thing for sure but the pictures on my Galaxy were just better, particularly the ones that required a flash. 

Pretty Darn Horrible
Now onto where the Blackberry gets blown away by the competition. My 12 year old son put it best when I showed him the Z10 in detail. I thought he would be impressed, but when I was done with the demo, he summarized it as follows. "It looks great for what you want, but not for what I want". What does he want? Games!! He also prefers the single tasking experience offered by Android and iOS, with games being his main focus, followed by YouTube and Music. The bottom line is that the Blackberry woefully lacks Apps whether they are games or anything else a power app person may want, such as Instagram, Netflix, Skype and Sonos. No business executive is going to side load anything so forget about that.
I am not overly interested in having many downloaded apps on my phone, but I do miss Google Maps and Google Drive. The maps version offered by blackberry doesn't even work in Sri Lanka, but most reviews given by people where it does work, give it the big thumbs down. The Google drive thin mobile version is absolutely pathetic. Thin Google maps is better but not as good as it could be. I kind of blame Google more for this as a bigger effort could be made by them to provide an adequate thin mobile version of their apps.
Skype and Google hangout? Well I had them loaded my Galaxy but never used them. Instead I used them at home, office or on my Nexus 7, so nothing changes for me there, but for others who depend on them to be on their mobile device, it would be a major issue.

Pretty Darn Good
You may ask then with glowing reviews so far :), why did I leave the Galaxy S3 for the Z10 then? 

Two simple reasons: Multitasking and the consolidated Hub.

These two features not only differentiate the Z10 from the kings, but they make them look like they just entered an amateur Karaoke contest in Vegas. I am surprised, almost shocked that most analysts did not properly pick up on the incredible value of these features. It only exposes their biases further as gadget guys and not as "get things done" guys.

The user interface simply put, is elegantly and beautifully optimized for multitasking.
There is no menu bar at the bottom for frequently used apps. I mean what is the point of them? You are only allowed two or three of them from the Kings. Instead on the Z10 the whole first panel is reserved for open apps. You look for your app though a list of static icons on the other panels just like you would on Android or iOS, but after it is clicked and loaded, a simple up swipe puts it in an active frame on the first panel. As you open new apps, the most recent one goes to the top of the list. Moving between the open apps is very simple as all you have to do is just tap on the one you want. The whole multitasking experience between apps is just a swipe up and tap (Blackberry brands this as Flow). The illustration is an example of my dynamic home panel of open apps. I understand that Windows also has a similar feature.
The Android and iOS user interface is optimized on the other hand for single tasking. The home button or a series of back button pushes is the conduit to the next application you want to use. Once you click the home button, the app you were working on is no longer visible. You then search for the next app icon and press it to load. You have no idea if it was already open or whether you are opening it for the first time. Getting back to where you came from is equally cumbersome. You can of course find out what apps are already open by long pressing the home button on the Galaxy or by double tapping it on iOS, but all you get is a list apps in icon or hard to read format that you have to scroll through. There is no real limit of open apps, so managing them in any organized fashion is difficult. The whole experience just comes across as an afterthought which is exactly what it is. The user experience is clunky and woefully outdated. Say what you want, but the user interface caters to a single tasking experience, full stop!
UPDATE: The nexus and latest stock Android does manage multiple open apps better but not having an always on hub diminishes the multi tasking experience significantly.

Now back to the Blackberry multi-tasking user interface. It assumes that you want quick access to your productivity apps, such as any kind of messaging such as text messages, bbm chats, social media, email, notifications, calendar events etc. All these features are consolidated and are part of the OS. I can get to them wherever I am, and whenever I want. If I am in an APP, I simply swipe up and to the right where I can have a peek at what is there or I can go right in. When I am done, its a simple left swipe and I am back in the home panel in flow mode, with the app I was just in on the top left (in the illustration above, the last app I was in would have been the Sonos room tunes app).
If I am in flow mode already, to get back into the hub, its a simple right swipe.

The Galaxy has a notifications center and so does the iPhone that is always accessible, but that is all it is,  a bunch of notifications. If you want to act on the notification, you have to go into the individual app to do anything of use. This is seriously child's play, compared to the Z10's messaging hub and if anyone tries to suggest this feature is comparable, then I would just have to "bum-rush" him/her right out the closest door I can find and tell them to stop wasting my time. So let's talk more about the hub then.

The Consolidated Messaging Hub. 

This is a messaging system built into the OS using an elegant cascading user interface. It is simply a thing of beauty. You can see all your messages consolidated by clicking on the HUB icon. If it gets too cluttered, you can click on the individual message types.
The purpose if this is to view and act on your messages using a common user interface. You never leave the hub when you respond to or compose the message. I have heard analysts complain that the email system is not as full featured as gmail. Well of course, but they miss the point. This is for "on the move people" who are reading their messages very quickly, generally with one finger, and ones who want to make quick and easy responses. I prefer to have the richer email experience if I am in my office or hotel room, but not when I am on the move.
Incidentally, evernote is also built into the OS. Again it is a subset of the full evernote app, but all my notes are synced for easy access and updates.

When in the hub, I also want to see my upcoming calendar appointments no matter what message type I am in. For this, all I have to do is to swipe down. In the illustration, you can see I am in my personal mail and I have swiped down to see my upcoming events. I can also flow directly into the full calendar app at any time by simply tapping on the upcoming events above. 

Another feature that I think is brilliant, but one I don't use is Balance. We don't use it because at our company, we don't have stringent security concerns.  Balance allows enterprises to separate controlled work environments from the user's personal environment. This is a pretty compelling feature to say the least.

No More Horse and Buggy for me but what about the general public?
The Z10 is not for everyone. It is certainly not for someone who wants the latest in 'cool' apps. Some may get ported to the Z10, but they will always go to iOS and Android first. That's life when you don't dominate the market.

But if multitasking with messaging, events, tasks, social media and web browsing are your main focus, the Z10 is king. In my family, it is definitely not for my son as indicated above. For my wife who uses the phone mainly for voice, text messaging, email, to do lists, calendar, facebook and the camera 90% of the time and the occasional use of the browser, the blackberry is what she wants. For my daughters who are in the their 20s and who use their phones similarly to my wife, the blackberry is also what they want. But they are already Blackberry users and most analysts agree that existing Blackberry users will be very happy with the Z10 (actually waiting on the Q10), so I am not saying anything new here.

I agree with the tech analysts that the Z10 will not take much market share from the kings, but I disagree with most of them that there is not enough to significantly differentiate it from the kings. For people who want to "get things done" and for enterprises who want to control the mobile work environment but also want to give their users flexibility to play on their own time, the Z10 simply just leagues ahead of the Kings. But with poor US carrier support and poor promotion of its strengths by mosts analysts,  David Pogue's VHS/Beta type argument may well come true.

Regardless of Blackberry's fate, let me talk about my experience with the move to the Z10. I do miss Google maps and Google drive for sure. I also really wanted the Sonos app, but I discovered that the Room tunes 3rd party app is a very good substitute and actually much faster. I can do without many other apps though because I can fire them up on my Nexus. That compromise is perfectly ok because of the massive benefits I get from the Z10 as I have described. After more than 1 week of use, I love the Z10 and I will not even consider going back to the Galaxy S3. I feel I have moved from the Horse and Buggy to the first motor car. The Horse and Buggy may have a better and more comfortable carriage, but horses are just no substitute for an engine.

Blackberry I believe has the foundation today to compete with the big boys in the future if they do things right. It will be a long and tough road and the odds are stacked against them and I am pretty sure they will not be able to do it alone. I am not so interested in their getting a better carriage (apps). Instead hopefully they will lead the way to building a new and better car, like the model-T. Here is why I think they can ultimately do it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My thoughts on Blackberry and Mobile Computing

At the company I work, B Sharp Technologies, the management team one week ago decided to embrace twitter and social media in general.  While bumbling through twitter, I had this brief discussion about Blackberry with Tim Stevens, the chief editor at Engadget.

I agree they can't be #1 or #2 today, but I very much think it is possible to plan a road to it.

Bill Gates did it to mighty IBM and Steve Jobs did it to Microsoft after Microsoft saved their bacon.
We know it is possible for the little guy to out innovate the big guy. In fact in Apple's case they did it after having moderate initial success, had a terrible fall, only to rise from the ashes again, much bigger and stronger. Sound like Blackberry? Well the first two chapters anyway.

Before one can rise again, the company needs to meet some basic prerequisites first.

Firstly, they they need a strong, patient, focused and cohesive management team and board who are hungry to succeed and have the ability motivate a staff with serious morale issues.

Secondly, they need a high level plan which they are given sufficient time to execute. Berlin was not rebuilt in a day. The details of the plan can be formulated based on how things progress.

Thirdly, they need a strong and flexible technical platform in place to work from.

Before talking about Blackberry and whether they have the necessary prerequisites to go forward, lets look at the "kings".

Apple - They no longer have the strong and focused management team. The guys who got them here are gone. Not only are they gone, but they are virtually irreplaceable. They seem to be left with bureaucrats who are overly obsessed with generating big short term gains and squashing the competition when possible, particularly via patent litigation. They have seemingly lost the cohesiveness, focus and possibly the hunger as well. Do they have a plan in place to lead the way to the next paradigm shift? With constant quick releases of pointless new S versions of products and obsession with keeping competition like Samsung down rather that trying out-innovate them, I can't see much happening that will be noteworthy. iWatch? It does not excite me like the Google Glass HUD (heads-up display) initiative. If you want a wearable device, what is the point of wearing it on your wrist?
Wearing it on your eyes and in your ears give you a whole lot more possibilities. I think one of Warren Buffets' famous quotes apply to Apple "Bad things aren't obvious when times are good"

Google - They have their strong leaders still there who are still very much intimately part of big new initiatives such as Google Glass and Driver-less Cars. They brought in a CEO and learned a lot from him about how to run a business, not one of their strong initial skills. Google is going great guns and I cannot see the other "Kings" being in any position to keep up. The Google Glass project alone could could be a big enough game changer to define the next paradigm shift. There just does not seem like there is anything that can slow Google down anytime soon. I think though they are facing some focus issues due the sheer volume of their projects and initiatives.

Microsoft - Well they are a giant seemingly going nowhere on the innovation front. Their management team is in disarray. In fact they have had leadership issues since the day Gates resigned. Platform? Yeah they do have a nice new consolidated one, but will that be the platform to allow them to lead the way to the next big thing? I don't think so. They are constantly playing catch-up and they are now alienating their partners by entering the hardware business and competing directly with many of them. Their biggest strength is customer lock-in,  which means, it is hard to leave them because there is so much dependency on their software. But that market advantage is starting to wear thin in the mobile world.

The only company "king" then that has it together to lead the way to the next shift is Google. The others are ready for the taking.

So what about Blackberry then? - How can they take on the "kings", particularly Microsoft and Apple? I have been studying the management team at Blackberry and I am very impressed. They interview well, they are calm, low key ,well prepared and seem clearly focused. I really like the fact that they don't waste their time trying to "diss" the competition. They seem to have a high level plan, and part of it is probably to put all their focus now into getting back onto a reasonable playing field first before they can start thinking about executing their next play.  Currently, if Blackberry can be well entrenched as number #3 in the smartphone OS business, ahead of Microsoft, I would think the management team will be very happy with that.

Blackberry has completed all the pre-requisites. They just completed the last one, which was to release the platform which will be their technical foundation for at least the next decade as announced by the CEO. I think anyone technical, who has studied the QNX platform, will have a difficult time disagreeing with the fact that Blackberry currently has the most superior platform from all the players.

Many analysts and technology writers can't see the "forest from the trees". If they could I suppose they would be CEOs and not analysts. That is the reason I feel many of them for example with respect to Blackberry ask similar questions or make similar claims in their articles. 1. "Is Blackberry too late?"; 2.  "Do they have enough to compete with the kings?"; 3."They don't have enough to differentiate themselves today"; 4."They do not have the necessary apps to sway people away".

My answer to those analysts questions are: 1. "Its never too late, if you have completed the pre-requisites and you are confident and determined" 2. "Yes they do for the same reason as 1" 3. Well they do on the UI front with HUB and Flow for business people, but not enough to get the general consumer 4. Agreed, but it should not matter in the long term. I will talk more about this down below.

Here is what really like about what Blackberry is doing and why I think they can become one of the  leaders in their field in time.

1) They are downplaying the Tablet. I am no visionary, but it would be great if they have the gutsy plans to scrap the tablet completely. Instead focus on becoming one of the leaders in embracing an alternative to the age old fixed display. They need to find a way to incorporate a large display solution with a small mobile device. Carrying around two CPUs to perform essentially the same functions, but with one just being used to provide a larger display surface makes little sense. Therefore giving the smartphone the ability make its display bigger, effectively makes a tablet redundant.
Maybe they look into a flexible display for the smartphone that can adjust in size as needed. We are seeing innovation already in this area from the likes of Samsung. Maybe they incorporate HUD, a kind of real time, virtual projection system similar to what is being done in the Google Glass project. Imagine sitting in a subway train and having HUD integration with your mobile device so you can read a big digital version of a newspaper that moves with you as you move your head. At home or office you could cradle the phone to a docking station with all the necessary peripherals, such as a big display. With Google glass you wear the whole computer, but maybe the phone can still have a fixed display that can integrate with a HUD peripheral when needed. They should start with output first. Input can come later.

2) They are talking about maybe getting out of the hardware business. If they can partner with a big player like Lenovo or Sony, then innovating, designing and building these new display devices and peripherals around the QNX platform become even more realistic. The Chinese and Japanese markets for QNX OS will open up as well.  Blackberry branding will change, but similar transitions such as IBM thinkpad to Lenovo Thinkpad  were fairly smooth. Blackberry can stay focused on advancing their new software platform for future mobile computing solutions while partnered with a strong set of hardware partners.

3) They are downplaying the importance of Apps. Well maybe they have no choice as they don't have the market share to get developers interested. I am hoping though that they have the vision that fat apps are only temporary. I think they do because they built the Android player. They know for the short term they have to appease the analysts and investors who place huge value on apps support, particularly leading ones like Instagram, Skype and Netflix. It is unlikely many of the app vendors would want to put resources into learning Cascades and to build their app all over again with all the testing challenges that go with it. It would probably be very tough to justify the ROI for most companies, but maybe an Android port could be simple and easy to do.
To me the whole Apps thing on mobile devices is one big con job. The apps stores generate huge revenues for the store hosts. I am not saying there was any deliberate conspiracy behind the initial app phenomenon because there was a practical reason to create large numbers of apps due to limitations in the devices. With 3g and LTE being virtually standard everywhere, a big increase in CPU power and browsers speeds being on par with laptop versions, I don't think we need all that many apps anymore. I "chuckle" when I go onto sites such as the New York Times, Cricinfo and other news sites and they ask if I want to download their native app version. Why? What about Twitter, Facebook, Linked IN, Youtube? I am sure most of us are perfectly happy using the thin version of these on our laptop, so why not on mobile devices? If developers spent more time focusing on good web mobile user interfaces, most apps would not be necessary. Native apps are also built so that user navigation can be consistent with apps built into the OS, but a lot of this can be accomplished on thin versions using CSS3 rendering today. We have developed at B Sharp, thin apps using the simple open source CSS3 toolkit called iWebkit, which can make a basic web app look just like an iPhone/iPad native app. Again its all about spending time and effort into building simple developer toolkits for thin solutions. But thin mobile apps are not in fashion, so its not happening as fast as it should.
There are still many apps which have value in remaining fat. Good examples are Evernote and Dropbox which are built for offline use. A similar argument can apply for games which can also be device intensive. It is though only a matter of time when thin is king. Remember in the 90s how much demand there was for people with Visual Basic or Powerbuilder skills? Boy did the need for those skills die off pretty quickly, seemingly overnight.  Similarly demand for objective C and Cascades developers should dissipate. Hopefully Blackberry's focus on Apps is part of a short term plan, just as a means to keep them in solid 3rd place for now.

4) They seem to be looking at providing practical NFC functions. I read they recently signed a deal to validate visa transactions. Hopefully they have lots of future plans to be one of the leaders in embracing NFC transactions which should become a standard and important part of the mobile experience.

5)  What I like most of all about Blackberry is their management team. I can't say this enough. They have passed with flying colours at least to an outsider like myself. Internally I am sure things are not that rosy, but where is it in any company? Many people say they are late to the game.
But why not instead look at the how they managed to get back into the game at all? That is a lot more interesting, surely? The board replaced their CEOs just a mere year ago. The new CEO Thorsten Heins formed a cohesive management team which then had the unenviable job of having to make the company lean, which meant cutting jobs. In addition they had to deal undoubtedly with conflict issues with their current Java team and the QNX team from Ottawa. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to deal with this type of conflict and initial low moral while the company restructured, knowing they had a massive product development effort going on with BB10. This happened while they had to keep investors and unhappy corporate customers at bay. Then they also had to introduce the UI team from Sweden into the fold. That must have resulted in some serious sparks flying.
So I as a consumer and business owner myself, I am not lamenting about how late they are to the game, but rather quite in awe at how they managed to get such a strong first iteration of their product out this soon frankly.

I will be continuing to follow Blackberry and I am very interested in what they have planned for tomorrow. I really believe they have a pretty good chance to regain market share in 3 to 5 years and compete head on with the "kings" in the mobile computing space, and even lead the way in some cases.

My Platforms
Work: Ubuntu Linux 12.04 laptop with VM versions of Windows XP and 7. Getting 8
Mobile: MAC air 11", Google Nexus 7, iPod touch, Blackberry Z10 (which replaced my daily use Galaxy GS3 on Monday)
Home: iMAC 21"
Productivity: Google Apps for Business and Google Drive.

Monday, January 21, 2013


All of a sudden the the term "POST-PC" is the latest buzzword. I heard it first from Steve Jobs when he used it in 2007 or so. I also heard Bill Gates use the term PC Plus. I looked it up and it turns out that the term was not coined by Steve Jobs but rather, David Clark from MIT in 1999.

Nevertheless, regardless of who invented the term, it is something that is difficult to explain like the way cloud computing means different things to different people. I think Steve Jobs referred to it in the context of devices such as the iPhone and later the iPad. I think for him devices such as Smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices would replace the need for a PC. I think Bill Gates may have meant that PCs will no longer dominate but rather be just another computing device.

For me post PC is about data. It is a combination of devices of all sorts with whatever operating system, but most importantly must include cloud computing and the general concept of thin. To me post PC means that I can get the data I want from any device anywhere. The device is all about the user experience. Gone should be the need to have large local disks or software installed other that the core OS and OS distributed apps such as a browser. The device should have the ability to figure out my context, which means it just needs to be told who I am.  I should not have to install any software on it. I should be able to do my daily stuff like do credit transactions, show my drivers license, passport or boarding pass, read my documents and email without doing direct file transfers or anything like that. Currently gmail, google apps, google maps, office 365, spotify, rhapsody, Salesforce, Netflix, Android, iOS, iPad, Blackberry 10, NFC, GPS, and the traditional PC and laptops themselves combined all contribute to the post PC-era.
iTunes, Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, Big local hard disks to store pictures, backup devices, downloaded mpeg movies, iTunes App store, Google play store are current PC Era items that need to be left behind as soon as possible.
Buying your own tunes or movies from iTunes or Amazon. No.. Just use netflix, spotify, rhapsody. Your playlists and movies should be anywhere and everywhere. On My phone, tablet, my car, my laptop, my PC. Same goes for downloading apps. They need to be thin, with exceptions (see next paragraph).

But that is not to say it all needs to be left behind. That will not be possible today. CAD, Movie studio editing, Software development tools, PC games and that kind of specialized stuff should remain on a traditional PC. They don't need to be everywhere and every place. That is why PCs are still must be part of the Post PC era. That is all the more reason why I like Bill Gates' term much better ==> PC Plus. 

The Post PC things not with us yet that I am most excited about are:
1) Wearable devices. The Google glass project has me really intrigued. In fact really, really intrigued. It is only at the drawing board stage, so we will seeing a lot more coming from them, other than a google glass hangout session with some sky divers. 
2) Also what are we going to do with NFC? Why is it taking so long to become mainstream? We need some pioneers. We need the big players like Apple, Google and Microsoft to team up and make it happen. If its not NFC, then something else. I must say I was excited to read about RIM's NFC deal with Visa. I will be very happy in my lifetime if I don't have to carry money, drivers licenses, insurance, passport or credit cards.  Its all there in my context on any device, anywhere.