Friday, May 22, 2009

Why the BlackBerry Storm 2's UI Could be a Winner

The original BlackBerry Storm came out in early December and despite a fair amount of anticipation and heavy promotion by RIM and its launch partners (Verizon in the US, Bell and Telus in Canada), the device received a thorough skewing in the blogotubes.

The complaints against it were numerous and ranged form well-deserved criticism to trollish whining, the most valid of which were:
  • A generally crummy build of the OS
  • The odd, love-it-or-hate-it-but-mostly-hate-it click screen.
Despite this, the Storm has sold relatively well - breaking the 1 million units sold about quicker than the original iPhone.[1]

However, it seems RIM is not satisfied with this and has taken people's complaints quite seriously. The unstable software (which was, at least somewhat understandably, rushed in order to catch the holiday season) has been undated to remove many of the original problems, however solving the hardware problem is much harder. Earlier today, Engadget posted some photos of the rumoured Storm 2 [2], which is due many months ahead of the usual 12-16 month refresh cycle, along with confirmation that the tacticle "SurePress" screen of the original Storm is gone.

In order to understand why the original click screen was needed we have note the differences between the BlackBerry OS and its main competitors - Android and iPhone OS. While both Android and the iPhone were under active development (2005-2008), the BlackBerry was already a pretty full-featured smartphone established in the corporate space. In order to support a multitude of features (the BB email app can do almost everything desktop Outlook can), the BB OS takes a more desktop-app like approach in which there is a distinct difference between selecting items and performing actions on the items. This makes much sense when supporting things like selecting several emails and choosing one of many different actions to support (moving to folders, deleting, flagging etc).

The iPhone OS and Android on the other hand, do not support selecting items and instead opt for a narrower feature set with a simpler UI. This works well for a lot of poeple, however the approach will breakdown if too many actions are supported. For example, forwarding and replying on the iPhone show up as buttons when an email is opened at the appropriate key is pressed, but what would the UI look like if instead of 3-4, there were 10-15 such buttons?

Being constrained by the way their OS worked, RIM thought they had a good solution in letting the touch screen do the selecting, while the pressing of the screen performed the action. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a huge bother in most use cases, such as selecting menu items, pressing buttons and especially typing. Thus, the SurePress screen turned out to be both essential and devilishly annoying.

With the Storm 2, RIM seemed to have realized this mistake and are touting something called the TruePress screen. While no one at the gadget blogs (Engadget, CrackBerry, Boy Genius, etc) seems to have use the Storm 2, I think that by making a few small changes, RIM could have a real winner on their hands. Namely:
  1. By removing the click screen and going with a touch-only screen, RIM can make the user experience much better in the vast majority of cases (selecting menu items, clicking buttons) by not requiring the odd screen-click
  2. In order to support the essential differentiation between selecting items and performing an action on an item, RIM could require that in cases were something could be selected (a list of emails for example), a single capacitative touch could select the item, while a double-click would perform the action. In addition to freeing them from the click screen, a double-click would also be familiar to a lot of people used to laptop touchpads.
If RIM gets the touch screen right the second time around, virtually all of people's complaints with the original Storm would be solved - it would have a gorgeous screen, intuitive touch interface, more solid build quality, more refined software all backed by the Blackberry's impressive featureset and system integration.

Whether the Storm 2 will be able to solve all the problems and preset a credible threat to Android and the iPhone remains to be seen.