With BlackBerry Storm2, RIM wins the battle but loses the smartphone war [review]

Research in Motion's BlackBerry Storm2 smooths the rough edges of the original. But that doesn't mean it's any more competitive in the race for the top smartphone.

On Monday, Research in Motion quietly announced the successor to the world's first touchscreen BlackBerry handset: the BlackBerry Storm2. With consideration to the tall expectations that faced its innovative but maligned predecessor at launch, the bungled announcement was a strange move.

The mishap can probably be chalked up to miscommunication between the maker and carrier Verizon, but it's an entrance that foreshadows the handset itself.

The original Storm was RIM's big splash into the new and growing touchscreen smartphone market. Long the preferred weapon of choice of executives and other white collar workers on the go, the BlackBerry was reinvented as a button-less, capacitive (but still click-friendly) device that preserved the familiar and wildly successful interface of a QWERTY keyboard BlackBerry but reformatted it for a full-touch device, along with all the trimmings of a successful smartphone, including an accelerometer, virtual keyboard and $199 price point.

Unfortunately, the Storm met considerable criticism once it launched. The clicky SurePress screen was prohibitively useful in regular use, the device omitted Wi-Fi altogether and it simply didn't compare to the king of smartphones: Apple's iPhone 3G.

That was exactly one year ago -- when the T-Mobile G1 was a mere month old, Palm's resurgence a pipe dream and the iPhone the only capacitive king around.

Since then, the smartphone landscape has changed considerably. The iPhone, now in its third incarnation, still reigns king. Palm has released its Pre and Pixi smartphones. Several manufacturers, including Motorola, HTC, Samsung and Dell have announced, released or hinted at Google Android-based devices on several carriers. Windows Mobile has attempted to keep pace with its v6.5 release.

All the while, RIM has introduced QWERTY devices, some to acclaim, with small changes that transition from the mechanical (rollerball) to the capacitive (touchpad). But the Storm stood alone.

Like Windows 7 is to Vista, the BlackBerry Storm2 9550 attempts to address the shortcomings of the first device without rocking the boat. RIM has added Wi-Fi, it's improved the touchscreen (four actuators instead of one sit beneath the display), it's ironed out software bugs and it's slimmed the performance to run in a more speedy fashion than the original.

But unlike Windows 7, the Storm2 doesn't introduce anything new -- it merely fixes what it didn't get right the first go-around. That's a pity, because RIM offers little to convince users to convert from the competition or even upgrade from the original model.

I didn't review the first Storm -- then co-blogger Josh Taylor did -- so I got to approach the Storm2 with a fresh set of eyes. I've spent a lot of time recently with Apple, Palm and Android-based products, so I was able to use that experience to contrast with that of the Storm2.

The Storm2 is a hodgepodge of innovative technology and stale holdovers. The build quality of the device is top-notch, finishes are refined and panel gaps respectable. In use, it reacted with speed. The 3.25-inch, 65,000-color screen was bright and detailed, and it hardly felt as experimental a product as the Palm Pre or most Android handsets announced thus far.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Storm2 feels better in your palm than any smartphone on the market.

The SurePress interface, much improved, remains a toss-up. I'm not a fan of devices with physical QWERTY keyboards, and I believe preserving mechanical input is a habit that will be dropped over time. I also understand it's a matter of preference for most folks. The original Storm attempted to convince its QWERTY-hardened customer base that a touchscreen with a click would be the best transition, but I'm not so sure this innovation is still necessary.

The smartphone world (along with the laptop and desktop worlds) is rapidly moving toward capacitive touchscreens as the default interface. Resistive input, for all but niche uses, is dead (sorry, Windows Mobile), and physical keyboards are a mental safety net for those who fear true "touch."

When using the Storm2, I alternated the entire time between thinking "this is unique, cool and a differentiating feature" to "I wish the input was transparent, simple touch so I could get on with what I want to do." The touch response on the Storm2 is better than any Android phone to date, but the requirement of a click to take action is an extra step that's neither any more accurate than touch-only nor particularly comfortable during "CrackBerry"-type levels of messaging.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: RIM would have a much better handset if it stopped trying to differentiate itself with input, and instead focused on a strong feature set. If you're trying to sell a car, you don't change the way people drive a vehicle. You change everything around it.

If you ignore the stopgap input method, the Storm2 is really a middling, albeit speedy, smartphone. It's friendly to business users thanks to its excellent integration with the enterprise, but the operating system itself -- even in its latest version, 5.0 -- isn't at all optimized for touch. The large icons of the menu are welcome to thumbs, but the prevalent list-style pop-up menus remain stale holdovers from an age when the only way to navigate was using a rollerball.

The Web browser remains a frustrating experience. The swipe-to-scroll was nice, but the click-to-zoom was endlessly frustrating, and the amount of steps it takes to perform simple tasks -- such as type in a Web address -- are reprehensible for such a high-profile device. Take applications, for example: despite the introduction of App World, downloaded applications are still buried in a folder of the same name. It shouldn't take three clicks (menu, applications, Facebook) to launch the Facebook app.

Further, the small text fields and other clickable objects were a pain to use via the Storm2's touch-click method of input.

The keyboard remains a mixed bag, mostly for the worse. While the horizontal keyboard spaces letters, numbers and characters out individually, the vertical keyboard continues to combine pairs of characters -- so a typical Q|W|E|R|T|Y|U|I|O|P set of keys looks like so: QW|ER|TY|UI|OP. No matter how I tried, be it consciously or habitually, I could not get the Storm2 to reliably type things without mistakes. The added requirement to "click" along with a touch made the vertical keyboard's exacting nature too inconsistent for heavy messaging use -- precisely what "CrackBerry" users are known for.

I did appreciate the Storm2's clear labeling and menu items, as well as how the four buttons at the bottom of the device itself -- call, menu, back and hang up buttons -- were integrated with the screen itself. During phone calls, I came through clearly to other callers, but incoming calls sounded thick and indistinct, albeit loud.

I also appreciated the phone's video recording and its overall form factor, a successful, future-proof design I believe RIM should stick with.

I do believe RIM has gone to great lengths to perfect the overall hardware of the phone, but it's time for the company to get aggressive in competing in the touchscreen smartphone arena. To do so, I believe the company needs to drop its innovative SurePress mechanical-touch input for a strictly capacitive touch interface -- no longer as much as novelty as it was a year ago -- allowing for the device to be thinner and lighter.

I also believe RIM needs to redesign BlackBerry OS from the ground up for a touch-only interface. There are elements of the Storm2's UI that work well via touch, but too many elements of the operating system are clearly holdovers from a physical QWERTY keyboard past.

The key word here: "intuitive." The goal: "It should just work."

That's going to take more than just shrewd decision-making at the top -- it's going to require a complete change of mindset at the company. For too long, RIM has lived off the spoils of its successful and dominant QWERTY handsets, but the company risks ceding its throne by ignoring an input standard that's rapidly replacing the one it has conquered.

It's time for RIM to settle on one honed, perfected model each of the premium Bold and the value-focused Curve and put all the rest of its development chips -- that is, the vast majority -- on the Storm.

The problem with the Storm2 is that it still resembles its predecessors. It's certainly not revolutionary, and it's barely evolutionary. (Or as ZDNet editor-in-chief Larry Dignan put it, "It's not enough to erase the memories of the first.")

It's time for RIM to redefine what "BlackBerry" means -- and it shouldn't take another squall of criticism to clear away the past and start anew.

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