Viable Mobile Platforms

The main reason I’ve decided to make the jump to the BlackBerry, despite it’s shortcomings, is that I no longer have any faith in the Palm OS as a platform.

RIP Palm OS

With the Palm OS sold and PalmSource looking to build on Linux, I just don’t see the current Palm OS getting “fixed” – and it needs it. Besides making phone calls and handling PIM functionality, the primary use for a smartphone is e-mail. The two biggest e-mail clients for the Palm OS (SnapperMail and VersaMail) both have miserable failures on current Palm OS data storage systems1. A read through the recent SnapperMail mailing list archives should be enough to scare away anyone from buying their product (which they push for Treo users while knowing the problems, which is a rant for another time).

The Palm OS is a triumph of user experience in many ways – simple and elegant. However a hallmark of a good user experience is reliability, and the “drained battery for no apparent reason” and frequent resets that have been my companion since I got my Palm T|X were enough that I could no longer rely on the device. My Palm T|X was dead the morning of my most recent flight home from the Bay Area, giving me no (convenient) way to access my flight confirmation number, the floor and number of where I parked in the lot, and no way to access the web or e-mail on the go if I’d needed to.

I’ve been excited for the Treo 700P for a long time, having been a happy Treo 300 and 600 user for the last 3+ years and having decided to skip the Treo 650. However, the combination of replacement Treo 600s not working properly for me, reports from friends that they’ve had nothing but problems with their Treos (600s on Verizon, Cingular and 650s pretty much everywhere), and the recent problems with the Palm T|X convinced me that it’s time to move on.

Windows Mobile… not so good

I’ve now used three different operating systems on my primary PDAs over the years (not counting cell phone OSes):

  • Newton OS
  • Palm OS
  • BlackBerry OS

On each of these, I could tell within 3 minutes of using the device that it would :scare: work :/scare: for me or not. I’ve played with a bunch of Windows Mobile (WM) devices2, and I’ve yet to have anything other than an “ugh” reaction to the WM interface.

Some of the new WM devices have great hardware. The Treo 700W and the HTC designs (with the slide-out keyboards) are really quite good (though some have fatal flaws). Unfortunately, you can’t get around the WM OS.

I’m not sure why, but the WM designers have continued to build their system so that you basically have to use the stylus to get things done. On my Treo 600, I probably used the stylus 5 times a year, and on the BlackBerry there is no touch screen or stylus! Stylus operation of a PDA requires two hands, and the Treo and BlackBerry prove you can have a successful device without needing it3.

I’m sure some folks find WM to be just what they want, but it isn’t for me. Most people I know who use WM devices love the wireless Exchange sync capabilities and care little about anything else. Some like the voice dialing too, though I’ve witnessed about a 50% success rate with that feature and I think if it wasn’t so painful to navigate the device to get to a phone number, the desire for this feature would be substantially diminished.

What are the other choices?

The Symbian OS runs on a ton of cell phones and smart cell phone devices, but it’s not really a PDA OS in my opinion. Perhaps this will change over time, or perhaps I’m missing a good example of its usage in a PDA and someone will correct me in the comments. Symbian doesn’t really excite me.

The Danger Hiptop (Sidekick) isn’t a bad device or OS, but it’s definitely a niche player at this point. They’ve never really gotten a swell of 3rd party developer support and they have lagged behind the Palm OS and WM in getting out devices to support high-speed data, etc. I wouldn’t say it’s dead the same way the Palm OS is, but it’s never been as successful as the Palm OS either.

The other option out there is the RIM BlackBerry. Now that they have their lawsuit behind them (knock wood), the BlackBerry seems like one of the most viable choices out there. While the Palm OS was primarily a device sold to consumers that they could use with their businesses, the BlackBerry is a device that has been traditionally sold to businesses and allocated to their employees. Being supported by corporate dollars instead of consumer dollars is a pretty good place to be.

With the 8700, RIM is working on making the BlackBerry a more consumer friendly device for folks like me who won’t be hooking it up to an Exchange server. I don’t think it’s quite ready for mass consumer adoption yet in terms of ease of use, but it’s definitely there as a power user device and the 3rd party developers are starting to create some nice add-ons for it.

Why I’m going with the BlackBerry

If my Treo 600 hadn’t broken, I’d probably still be using it happily as a Sprint customer. When my tools are working, I rarely think about them. In fact, if my replacement Treo 600 had worked properly, I’d probably still be using that happily as a Sprint customer. However, once I was going to be forced to spend money on a new device, I started looking around at my options4.

My first plan was to hold out for the Treo 700P. For the reasons listed above, that didn’t work out. I considered a WM device briefly, but thought better of it. My friends have raved about the BlackBerry to me in the past. Eric might have given it the highest praise:

Since I moved from the Treo to the BlackBerry, I never even think about it anymore.

However, I always dismissed it because the Sprint BlackBerry data plan is an extra $40-50. Then last week the BlackBerry 8700g was released on T-Mobile, which has a BlackBerry data plan for only $20/month.

Since I was out of my Sprint contract, I started seriously considering this as an option. I decided to take the plunge, realizing that I would have 2 weeks to try it and return it if I didn’t like it. While I haven’t been overjoyed with all aspects of the BlackBerry, there is a lot I really like.

  • The interface, while not easy, is consistent and relatively fast to use.
  • The keyboard is fantastic.
  • The SMS functionality is so well done that I’m actually using text messages for the first time.
  • The browser is basic but fast and quite sufficient.
  • My Bluetooth headset works with it.
  • T-Mobile has a $20 add on plan for international BlackBerry data, so I can keep my business running while I’m in Italy.
  • I’ve been able to hack around most of my frustrations. :)

Mobile computing is something I think about quite a bit, but I think I’ve pretty well exhausted my output on the topic for a while. I’m now on a one year contract with T-Mobile, and hopefully by that time I’ll be content with the BlackBerry and won’t even be thinking about this anymore. :)

  1. ChatterEmail works, so if you’re on a current Palm OS device, that’s probably your best choice. [back]
  2. I’ve even done some contract work building UIs for Windows Mobile applications. [back]
  3. I had to get friendly with the stylus again when I went back to the Palm T|X and I never really could. This is another reason I was ready to jump back to a smartphone device. [back]
  4. It’s actually a little disappointing when you look at the mobile landscape. We’re incrementally better than we were 4 or 5 years ago, but not by a whole lot. I’m not sure if this is a chicken and egg problem (companies not investing the money to innovate because consumers aren’t buying enough of the existing devices – lather, rinse, repeat), but I know that in 2001-02 I expected to have much more capable mobile devices in 2006 than we do. [back]