Why Can't We Clean RIM's Sticky Balls?

Research In Motion, you clean OUR balls at YOUR cost.

Since the introduction of RIM's 8000-series smartphones, all BlackBerry devices with a physical keyboard have incorporated a non-removable trackball.

I have no other way of describing the condition. My BlackBerry Bold has a Sticky Ball.

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I entered the world of Crackberry-dom a little over two years ago when I switched jobs and signed up with AT&T Wireless as my corporate cell phone provider.  At the time I decided to go with a BlackBerry 8800, one of the first of RIM's devices to use a trackball instead of a thumb wheel which had been used in all of their previous smartphones. Midway into my contract I ended up having to replace the 8800 with a Bold 9000. I wasn't happy with the prospect of getting hit with the dreaded "Early Upgrade" fee but I was now a certified CrackBerry addict and there was no going back.

For the most part, I've been a happy BlackBerry user. I love how it is integrated into my employer's corporate email and calendaring system and how it is also able to work with my personal email and appointments in a seamless fashion. I love that the BlackBerry Bold 9000 has a physical keyboard. But man, do I hate the trackball.

It's not that I dislike trackballs as interface devices. I actually prefer them to mice when used on desktop PCs, because I find they give you a finer level of precision control than when using a mouse, even with a high-resolution optical mouse. However in a smartphone, at least as implemented on the BlackBerry, trackballs are flipping stupid.

Let me explain. On a PC, you can physically remove the trackball and clean the schmutz that accumulates as a result of the ball coming into contact with trace oils and grime on your fingers as well as any airborne dust and other particulates that settle onto the exposed surface area of the ball. No matter how clean you keep your hands, you will inevitably gather enough gunk on the ball itself or the mechanical tracking wheels that you will need to remove the ball, wipe it off and clean the sensors.

However, on most current model BlackBerry smartphones, you don't have the ability to do this. It is possible to accumulate enough grime on the ball and in the internal tracking mechanism for a RIM trackball to stop tracking in a particular direction. Which is what has now happened to my $500 smartphone that is two months away from being out of warranty. The problem is that I can't pull a BlackBerry trackball out without voiding my warranty so it has to be serviced by AT&T. BlackBerry Hospital, here I come again.

RIM has apparently chosen to eliminate the trackball from all future devices due to overwhelming complaints about their Sticky Balls. The successor to the BlackBerrry Bold 9000, the BlackBerry 9700 "Onyx", which was recently previewed in beta hardware form, uses an optical sensor that is similar to a "trackpad" used on notebook computers. The recently launched Curve 8520 also uses the same sensor.

But this doesn't help those of us who have BlackBerries that are out of their 1-year warranty,  mid 2-year contract with gunked up balls but are otherwise functioning perfectly. What are we supposed to do, eat the "Early Upgrade" fee again and get brand new 9700s or 8520s for $400.00-$500.00 at full retail because we don't qualify for a new subsidized device yet? Pay $100 or whatever exorbitant fee at our carrier's discretion so we can get our balls cleaned? [EDIT: Or as others have suggested in the Talkbacks, potentially damage our devices by attempting a home repair without using precision tools and a service manual? Uh, no.]

If that's the case, then go to hell, RIM. You can clean OUR busted balls at YOUR cost because of YOUR flawed design. Because if you don't, I forsee multiple class action lawsuits in the near future originating from ball-busting lawyers from angry corporations which have many thousands of fleet purchased ball-based BlackBerries.

Are your BlackBerry Balls All Gunked Up? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.