Charles Arthur On Technology

Don't go picking Blackberries this autumn - at least not while they've got the design this wrong

Just over a year ago I raved in this column about the Blackberry 7230, the handheld that seemed finally to have brought everything into the average user's hands: a colour screen you could read, a phone, web browsing, e-mail, contact and calendar support, topped off with a small but very usable Qwerty keyboard. How could it improve, I wondered, except by adding Bluetooth and support for Apple machines?

Just over a year ago I raved in this column about the Blackberry 7230, the handheld that seemed finally to have brought everything into the average user's hands: a colour screen you could read, a phone, web browsing, e-mail, contact and calendar support, topped off with a small but very usable Qwerty keyboard. How could it improve, I wondered, except by adding Bluetooth and support for Apple machines?

Well, the designers at Blackberry heard me - sort of. Unfortunately, they were also listening to someone else who was complaining that this handheld machine just wasn't enough like, you know, a mobile phone. Sure, it could do all the things a mobile could. But when you held it to your ear, you looked kind of... geeky.

And so we must tell the tale of how a great design descended into a morass, because it wasn't enough like something else. It's a tale worth considering, because in all industrial design (which is what we end up using, eventually), someone, at some point, should say: "No, this bit is just right. Leave that bit alone. Change something else."

First, let's examine what the new Blackberry 7100V (the "V" stands for Vodafone, which has the product exclusively in the UK for now) is up against: mobile phones.

Mobile phones are everywhere - as is their keypad design. Twelve buttons, three across and four down, with the letters of the alphabet attached to each button in a peculiar but de facto standard layout, familiar to everyone with a mobile phone and a pulse because of text messaging.

And what did the Blackberry have that mobiles didn't? A Qwerty keyboard. Even though you had to type with two thumbs, it was surprisingly easy, and you could compose quite long messages, because you knew Qwerty layout. Dave Farber, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, often runs his "interesting people" mailing list, which deals with hundreds of e-mails sent to him by people from all over, through a Blackberry.

So. Standard mobile phone layout vs Qwerty layout. Which would Blackberry choose in making its new machine more like a mobile?

Answer: neither. Instead, it introduced a new layout, five across by four deep, with two (or sometimes one) letters on each key. That's right: in a world where you have two utterly dominant typing paradigms, the designers introduced a new one. I can only imagine the silence that must have greeted its unveiling at the product review meeting. And the still, small voice of one executive: "You mean we've got to make people learn an entirely new way of typing?"

Yet, amazingly, it got through, and here's the product - which, not by chance, also includes some very powerful predictive software to guess what word your stumbling fingers are trying to write.

Blackberry's people are at pains to emphasise that the whole purpose of the design is to accommodate people who use mobile phones a lot but also want to be able occasionally to write a short bit of text. Unlike the Qwerty-endowed 7230, it's not intended for lots of typing.

Matthew Waite, Blackberry's product manager for Vodafone, insists that the 7100 suits him perfectly (well, he would). "The target audience is somebody like me because I make a lot of voice calls, and get about 200 e-mails a day." The company is targeting the corporate market - essentially, one can see, travelling salespeople. Or at least itinerant staff who may sometimes need to receive and send an e-mail.

One must hope that the need to text doesn't arrive often; I found it very hard to get used to the layout, because it's essentially like taking a Qwerty system and crunching its two halves together. I was slower than when I type or SMS text. Much slower. "Don't look at the keys," the Blackberry people told me. (Or was it "don't look at the screen"?) Yes, the predictive software is quite good - but it's not perfect. You'll make mistakes. And while you're learning, you'll curse this gadget instead of admiring it.

As for the phone functions, they're just like those of any mobile, so that's hardly a selling point. You're left with a mobile that's hard to text on, and a PDA that's hard to type on.

And there's a bigger problem. If this is a corporate product, it's going to be supplementary to its user's own mobile phone. That person will therefore have to switch between SMS texting and this method - a jarring, disconcerting change in which the Blackberry will always come off worst because you've used it less - and then between "7100 typing" and typing on a Qwerty keyboard, in the office or home. That really is demanding a lot.

But wait, we're not done yet. The design fiasco even stretches to the much-needed Bluetooth functionality and the onscreen icons. Bluetooth? A fabulous way to synchronise your handheld wirelessly with your computer. The 7100 doesn't do that, though; it only uses Bluetooth for handsfree kits. Palm, by contrast, had Bluetooth connectivity to computers nailed ages ago.

It also took me a while to make the Bluetooth work, because the main screen showed a Bluetooth icon with a red stripe through it, while the text at the top of the screen read "Bluetooth On" in confident, bold letters. So was it on or off? Actually, off. Though there was space to write "Bluetooth - turn on" or "Turn Bluetooth On" to match the red-striped icon, someone decided shorter was better. Wrong: more precise is better.

It's hard to express how depressing it feels to see something we really need, a handheld computer-cum-phone, approach a zenith in design - and then whizz straight past it on to the downslopes. At least the 7230 is still on sale. I'd urge you to get it. And if your employer tries to foist the 7100 on you, get him or her to use it to text you the reasons why they think you should. Perhaps you'll receive the 7230 after all.

Blackberry 7100V from Vodafone (0800 101112), price varies according to contract, from free to £100

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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