Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for a Samsung Galaxy A5… Successfully¬†

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An iPhone SE wouldn’t do. There were no DTEK50s left in Canada. And it was January, 2018.

Our Z10s were five years old. Happy Birthday.

I was frustrated. I had been researching how to solve the Phone Problem for about nine months. Over the past month and a half of concerted effort I had twice tried to buy new phones and get them to work. And I had twice failed.

Defeated, I gave up trying to game the system and reluctantly worked within it. I signed up for a two-year plan. I ordered a “0$” phone. I ordered us Samsung Galaxy A5s.

Not sure you’ve heard of those? Me neither. The trademark soup of Android phone names hasn’t improved in the decade since its release.

In this particular case you might not have heard of it because it wasn’t originally supposed to show up in North America. It was going to target EMEA and LatAm only… but then some Canadian carriers made it worth Samsung’s while to bring it to the Great White North.

So how is it. It is a tidy little phone with just enough nods to the now-past (SD Card slot, headphone jack), and just enough gee whiz features (fingerprint sensor for unlock, Always On OLED screen, USB Type-C connector) to bridge our way out of BlackBerry Land.

BBM Groups works, but notification settings are a joke. The Hub is here, but it is a pale shadow of its always-available BB10 edition.

I’ve managed to find a way to install the Android edition of the BlackBerry keyboard. It is familiar enough that I’ve composed all three of these voluminous posts about phones on it. It is strange enough in the details that I still can’t get capitalization correct all of the time.

It makes a difference to me that Samsung is trying to compete with Google in enough ways that many things don’t have to default to data collection. We’re still deep in the belly of the beast, but there are holes that I can see sunlight through so long as I can find the right settings to turn off.

It has enough nice touches that make me think that maybe the Samsung devs care about their phones as much as I care about the ones which bear my code. Like how, when it’s dark, the screen fades into brightness slower than when it’s light out. There’s also all these little false-starts on the phone as well that suggests investment in the R part of R&D, like swiping the phone with the edge of your hand to screenshot. I’d never do that, and have turned it off, but you have to try things to find things that work.

Also, I’ve found a replacement for BlackBerry Blend. It has its quirks, but so did Blend, and I’m looking forward to bending it to my will.

In short, it’s a mixed bag of features poured into a big slab of glass. It’ll do. Since it has to.

So that’s that. We have now left the land of Products of Five Years Past. It is a strange world, but it’s one with Firefox in it, so it can’t be all bad, right?

I hope you’ve found these rambling diatribes of Old Man Yelling at Phone to be entertaining, educating, or at least diverting.

Here’s to having to not have to do this for another five years! (he says, ignoring a creeping sense of dread)

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Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for a BlackBerry DTEK50

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Previously in my attempts to upgrade my and my wife’s nearly five-year-old smartphones, I tried the iPhone SE. It didn’t go well. But at least there was no hurry to move off of our venerable Z10s.

And then the December update of BBM landed.

The consumer portions of BlackBerry Messenger for Android and iPhone were licensed by BlackBerry Ltd to the Indonesian communications technology company Emtek in 2017. Indonesia has a huge BBM userbase, and a huge Android userbase, so this made a lot of sense for both companies.

This left the company-formerly-known-as-Research-in-Motion with BBM Enterprise and keeping the lights on for the consumer BBM infrastructure supporting BBOS and BB10.

What this means is fragmentation. In much the same way that languages will evolve dialects when isolated, so too will previously-compatible software become incompatible.

In this particular case, the December Android and iOS BBM updated so that pictures added to BBM Groups were no longer compatible with the BB10 version of the app. This shows as a “Feature not supported” message and a link to a page that says “Upgrade to the latest BBM” if you are on Android or iOS… and “Upgrade your phone to an Android or iOS device” if you are on BB10.

I found this out when one of my friends updated his phone to a BlackBerry KeyONE and could no longer send pictures of how tall his son had gotten. (6’5″ last I heard).

That’s right. A BlackBerry couldn’t communicate with another BlackBerry. With BBM.

The irony.

This was especially painful to us as we used BBM groups as a private, self-expiring social network. At this it was quite good: we could share photos and text with small groups made up of only those who might care, and the content would scroll off the top and eventually disappear without intervention. High signal, low noise.

Our friends stopped upgrading once they heard of our troubles, but things weren’t going to get any better if we waited. So on Boxing Day I ordered two BlackBerry DTEK50s from Amazon.

BlackBerry had stopped selling these in Canada, having licensed the device hardware business to Chinese manufacturer TCL under the name BlackBerry Mobile who is interested in selling BlackBerry KeyONE handsets and preorders for the BlackBerry Motion. As such, the only DTEK50s I could find were the EMEA editions, but they supported 2600MHz LTE on Band 4, which the towers throughout the province supported quite well.

I opened the phone and plopped in a SIM and suddenly realized just how BlackBerry an Android phone could feel. I don’t think I properly accounted for how much I would miss the BlackBerry keyboard, the blinking LED for notifications… and the Hub. Having all of my messages and stuff show in a single place really is the way I’ve become used to handling the volume of emails I receive.control

(( Of course this is anathema to the app model. Heaven forfend I control messages and data from aught but the app that owns the data. APIs, what’re those? ))

So I was mostly a happy camper. The notification settings weren’t as precise as BB10’s, I could tell within a day that I was going to miss Blend, and I had almost but not quite finished mourning the loss of “headers only” email download…

But there was a problem. The phone wouldn’t connect at anything higher than HSPA+. No LTE. Weird. I checked this before I bought it. Band 4 overlaps. Right?

After spending hours holding for carrier support and hours scouring the wide Web for help, I discovered no solution. There was nothing I could try. There were no leads to run down. The phone just stubbornly refused to connect to LTE, and likely never would.

This was a deal breaker. I wasn’t going to spend hundreds of dollars on phones that didn’t work, no matter how much I pretended that I wouldn’t mind since I’m on WiFi most of the time anyway.

So back they went to Amazon.

And back I went to a BBM that wouldn’t receive group pictures from a steadily increasing number of friends and family.

Something had to be done. And soon.

:chutten

Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for an iPhone SE

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Black Friday 2017 was coming around and I was spending it repeating what I’d done many times over the course of the year: looking at smartphones.

My wife and I were then using BlackBerry Z10s: those venerable launch devices of the failed* mobile platform BlackBerry 10. These were holdovers from my time as an employee of Research in Motion (aka RIM) eventually renamed BlackBerry Ltd where I worked on the Browser Team from 2008 until 2015.

The Z10 was released in January 2013, which made our phones nearly five years old. This is an eternity for the rapidly-evolving handset hardware business. We were fine with our Z10s, but they were starting to age: batteries drained faster, free storage fell lower, and weird things like “turning off the Wi-Fi for no apparent reason” started happening with ever-increasing prominence, if not frequency.

We were past due for a change.

The BlackBerry Z10 is a small device (by today’s standards) so there were few acceptable choices from the current crop of phones with the correct form factor. Also at this level of concern were security, privacy, and how long it would be sent supporting software updates. The iPhone SE was recommended to me by a dev who sits next to me at my coworking space.

It seemed ideal: excellent support, world-class design, the first platform to get apps, and it kept Google’s data collection to apps instead of bleeding it through the entire phone.
So on Black Friday I bought into That Other Fruit Company at their most affordable pricepoint.

And I hated it.

First off, it had a voicemail indicator that never went away.

Secondly, the mail app showed at most six emails on one screen.

Third, I had to use separate apps to track email, calendar, BlackBerry Messenger, phone calls, SMS.

Fourth, its text-selection capabilities and fine cursor control were horrible.

Fifth, I couldn’t set a non-Safari default browser which meant I was copy-pasting URLs from emails to Firefox multiple times a day. (Something went wrong with the share framework so I couldn’t even “share” the URL to Firefox. Focus worked, though.)

Sixth, there as no way to get my messages and calendar to show on my desktop outside of GMail.

Seventh, and fatally, the WiFi would cut out whenever the screen turned off.

To be fair, the WiFi thing was a hardware fault, the voicemail thing is a problem with my carrier account that they still haven’t resolved, and I was likely going to hate it no matters what it did.

Apple was the enemy for so long I don’t think I could’ve given it a fair shake if the hardware were perfect and my carrier had spent any of its millions of dollars on improving its infrastructure so an empty voice mailbox would read as empty to new phones.

I returned the iPhones, my wife’s untouched. I had given it a week, and it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be happy with even the smallest and most affordable iDevice.

This was unfair. The thing took amazing photos exactly when I asked it to. Its browser scrolled almost as well as the BlackBerry 10 Browser. It did what it was asked with quiet efficiency.

But it wasn’t as good as it needed to have been to overcome my apparently-still-strong anti-Apple bias. So back they went.

Luckily, there was nothing immediately forcing us to make a decision, so we could ride our Z10s into the dirt if we wanted. My wife expressed that she was going to be unhappy to switch to any new device in equal measure, so it didn’t really matter which one.

Also, she was happy to stick to her tried-and-trusted Z10. She had it configured just the way she liked it.

So that’s the story of my unsuccessful attempt to leave my BlackBerry Z10 for an iPhone SE. May it help you in your search for acceptable personal computing appliances amongst the garbage the resident duopoly have left us.

:chutten

Apple Didn’t Kill BlackBerry

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It was Oracle.

And I don’t mean “an Oracle” in the allegorical way Shakespeare had it where it was MacBeth’s prophecy-fueled hubris what incited the incidents (though it is pretty easy to cast anything in the mobile space as a reimaging of the Scottish Play). I mean the company Oracle was the primary agent of the the downfall of the company then-known as Research in Motion.

And they probably didn’t even mean to do it.

To be clear: this is my theory, these are my opinions, and all of it’s based on what I can remember from nearly a decade ago.

At the end of June 2007, Apple released the iPhone in the US. It was an odd little device. It didn’t have apps or GPS or 3G (wouldn’t have any of those until July 2008), it was only available on the AT&T network (a one-year exclusivity agreement), and it didn’t have copy-paste (that took until June 2009).

Worst of all, it didn’t even run Java.

Java was incredibly important in the 2000s. It was the only language both powerful enough on the day’s mobile hardware to be useful and sandboxed enough from that hardware to be safe to run.

And the iPhone didn’t have it! In fact, in the release of the SDK agreement in 2008, Apple excluded Java (and browser engines like Firefox’s Gecko) by disallowing the running of interpreted code.

It is understandable, then, that the executives in Research in Motion weren’t too worried. The press immediately called the iPhone a BlackBerry Killer… but they’d done that for the Motorola Q9H, the Nokia E61i, and the Samsung BlackJack. (You don’t have to feel bad if you’ve never heard of them. I only know they exist because I worked for BlackBerry starting in June 2008.)

I remember a poorly-chroma-keyed presentation featuring then-CTO David Yach commanding a starship that destroyed each of these devices in turn with our phasers of device portfolio depth, photon torpedoes of enterprise connectivity, and warp factor BlackBerry OS 4.6. Clearly we could deal with this Apple upstart the way we dealt with the others: by continuing to be excellent at what we did.

Still, a new competitor is still a new competitor. Measures had to be taken.

Especially when, in November of 2007, it was pretty clear that Google had stepped into the ring with the announcement of Android.

Android was the scarier competitor. Google was a well-known software giant and they had an audacious plan to marry their software expertise (and incredible buying, hiring, and lawyering power) with chipsets, handsets, and carrier reach from dozens of companies including Qualcomm, Motorola, and T-mobile.

The Android announcements exploded across the boardrooms of RIM’s Waterloo campus.

But with competition comes opportunity.

You see, Android ran Java. Well, code written in Java could run on Android. And this meant they had the hearts and minds of every mobile developer in the then-nascent app ecosystem. All they had to do was not call it Java and they were able to enable a far more recent version of Java’s own APIs than BlackBerry was allowed and run a high-performance non-Java virtual machine called Dalvik.

BlackBerry couldn’t match this due to the terms of its license agreement, while Google didn’t even need to pay Sun Microsystems (Java’s owner) a per-device license fee.

Quickly, a plan was hatched: Project Highlander (no, I’m not joking). It was going to be the one platform for all BlackBerry devices that was going to allow us to wield the sword of the Katana filesystem (still not joking) and defeat our enemies. Yes, even the execs were dorks at RIM in early 2009.

Specifically, RIM was going to adopt a new Operating System for our mobile devices that would run Dalvik, allowing them to not only finally evolve past the evolutionary barriers Sun had refused to lift from in front of BlackBerry Java…. but to also eat Google’s lunch at the same time. No matter how much money Google poured into app development for Android, we would reap the benefit through Highlander’s Android compatibility.

By essentially joining Google in the platform war against the increasingly-worrisome growth of Apple, we would be able to punch above our weight in the US. And by not running Android, we could keep our security clearance and be sold places Google couldn’t reach.

It was to be perfect: the radio core running RIM’s low-power, high-performance Nessus OS talking over secure hardware to the real-time QNX OS atop which would be running an Android-compatible Dalvik VM managing the applications RIM’s developers had written in the language they had spent years mastering: Java. With the separation of the radio and application cores we were even planning how to cut a deal with mobile carriers to only certify the radio core so we’d be free to update the user-facing parts of the OS without having to go through their lengthy, costly, irritating process.

A pity it never happened.

RIM’s end properly began on April 20, 2009, when Oracle announced it was in agreement to purchase Sun Microsystems, maker of Java.

Oracle, it was joked, was a tech company where the size of its Legal department outstripped that of the rest of its business units… combined.

Even I, a lowly grunt working on the BlackBerry Browser, knew what was going to happen next.

After Oracle completed its acquisition of Sun it took only seven months for them to file suit against Google over Android’s use of Java.

These two events held monumental importance for Research in Motion:

Oracle had bought Sun, which meant there was now effectively zero chance of a new version of mobile Java which would allow BlackBerry Java to innovate within the terms of RIM’s license to Sun.

Oracle had sued Google, which meant RIM would be squashed like a bug under the litigant might of Sun’s new master if it tried to pave its own not-Android way to its own, modern Java-alike.

All of RIM’s application engineers had lived and breathed Java for years. And now that expertise was to be sequestered, squandered, and then removed.

While Java-based BlackBerry 6 and 7 devices continued to keep the lights on under steadily decreasing order volumes, the BlackBerry PlayBook was announced, delayed, released, and scrapped. The PlayBook was such a good example of a cautionary tale that BlackBerry 10 required an extra year of development to rewrite most of the things it got wrong.

Under that extra year of pressure-cooker development, BlackBerry 10 bristled with ideas. This was a problem. Instead of evolving with patient direction, adding innovation step-by-step, guiding users over the years from 2009 to BlackBerry 10’s release in 2013, all of the pent up ideas of user interaction, user experience paradigms, and content-first design landed in users’ laps all at once.

This led to confusion, which led to frustration, which led to devices being returned.

BlackBerry 10 couldn’t sell, and with users’ last good graces spent, the company suddenly-renamed BlackBerry just couldn’t find something it could release that consumers would want to buy.

Massed layoffs, begun during the extra year of BlackBerry 10 development with the removal of entire teams of Java developers, continued as the company tried to resize itself to the size of its market. Handset prices increased to sweeten fallen margins. Developers shuffled over to the Enterprise business unit where BlackBerry was still paying bonuses and achieving sales targets.

The millions of handsets sold and billions of dollars revenue were gone. And yet, despite finding itself beneath the footfalls of fighting giants, BlackBerry was not dead — is still not dead.

Its future may not lie with smartphones, but when I left BlackBerry in late 2015, having myself survived many layoffs and reorganizations, I left with the opinion that it does indeed have a future.

Maybe it’ll focus on its enterprise deployments and niche device releases.

Maybe it’ll find a product millions of consumers will need.

Maybe it’ll be bought by Oracle.

:chutten