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

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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