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.


Anonymous said...

Nice review. I think one feature that most people do not realize at first is the "Cards" feature. This is the ability of apps to make their functionality available to other apps. This is an important part of the flow. For instance, start to compose an email. If you should want to add a photo as an attachment, go to attachments, and select pictures. Within that area you will have the option of taking a photo. When done with the camera, the picture will show up attached to the email. You did not have to exit the email to take the photo. The photo app had published functionality which you could use within the email app. Other app writers could make the functionality of their apps available to other apps, or even the hub (I believe). It helps with getting work done.

The Flow is about context, not just swiping. Blackberry has stuck with pushing the simpler to explain features of the OS to the general public. The support for "Cards" was definitely being promoted to the developer community.

A lot of the negatives that you list will get resolved over time I suspect, such that people won't have given up much by selecting a Z10, but will have gained some nice unique features.

Anonymous said...