Discovering BlackBerry

It’s that time of year again, when my phone feels a little long in the tooth and I start having primal urges to refresh my tech. Actually, my old phone (Nokia N95-8Gb) is perfectly useful and ideal for continued use. I have a problem and I shall submit myself to my addiction. Do you have a problem with that?

I’ve been researching what to replace my phone with for a few months, now. I want strong integration with my various email accounts, social networking and good web access. I also require a good music player with podcasting capabilities. The phone must also connect to Wi-Fi networks seamlessly, using Wi-Fi over my Mobile Network if possible. The Nokia N95-8Gb does all this. It really is a very good phone, even if it is 2-3 years old.

My original intention was to get a Nokia N97, the natural upgrade path for the N-series. This is being pushed as being Social Media aware and has a touch screen. It runs on Symbian so will be rock solid and I know I can rely on the strengh of the N-series platform. But it was on the dear side at around £500. I’m also not a big fan of touch-screens for typing numbers/messages – tactile feedback is essential and no haptic/pseudo tactile feedback is going to replace that. I also looked at the HTC Touch series of phones, which look very smart, but are handicapped by their adoption of Windows Mobile which Microsoft desperately needs to rewrite, preferably using the core of the Zune/XBox 360 with a number of business applications on top. I even looked at the Apple iPhone, an over-priced, under-specified device which has the fanboys excited every year when Apple does a minor refresh. While a very usable phone, its value serves more as a superficial and egotistical add-on to a personality than a phone that can actually be used.

I eventually decided on the BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220. It’s not that pretty, it’s a bit plasticy, it has no widgets, gizmos or slidey, touchy, happy screens. It’s a no-frills, no-BS business phone. And I really like it. While the learning curve is pretty steep both in terms of typing on the SureType keypad and figuring out how to configure it, I’m immediately seeing value in it. The only reason why I held off for so long is that it doesn’t have any podcasting or decent music player support which was a killer feature for me.

I might be a little late on this boat, but I’m not one to follow fads. Better to let other users adopt a new paradigm, get all excited, work out the kinks, then for me to buy into it.

Things I love:

  • The API allows applications to have deep access into the phone. No “sandboxing” means applications like UberTwitter and Facebook can integrate into other applications, appearing in the Contacts and Messaging menus. While sandboxing your applications improves reliability and safety of your phone, it does create a disconnected user experience.
  • It’s highly configurable. So configurable I have no idea what many of the settings even do or why they are even there. It took my a couple of days to figure out how to change my message tone, but once I found it, the flexibility offered is perfect.
  • Obviously the BlackBerry value-added service of email account integration and “push email”. Being able to off-load the collection of emails is very useful.
  • Integrated messaging between email and Facebook.

Not so hot:

  • The default web browser is pants. A shame for an “always on” Internet device. It’s slow and poorly rendered. Luckily, Opera can be installed on it, though it is not used by default so clicking on links in the BlackBerry will still open the original browser.
  • There’s no GPS, which is a shame. A mapping application is provided, though.
  • The processor is on the under-powered side, particularly when browsing the web using the default web browser or using the Maps application.

There is also a vibrant BlackBerry community and application ecosystem out there which I am dipping into. For Twitter users, I’d highly recommend UberTwitter, which ticks all my boxes and more. I’d buy a BlackBerry just for this application, to be honest.

This does leave my requirement for a music player/podcast downloader to be met, though. Not to worry, the BlackBerry was just £50 from Sure Cable and Wireless which means I can still afford a dedicated unit for playing music/listening to podcasts. I’m going for a Sony Walkman device, now they have finally dumped ATRAC. All in all, from a budgetted new phone of £500, I’m going to save at about £250.

UK: Have Microsoft fallen out with us?

The UK is widely regarded as being one of the key countries the drive
innovation in technology. Indeed, the computer was invented in the UK, in
Manchester. Obviously, much of the innovation now occurs in America. With the
signifcantly larger population and economy it provides  natural wealth of
resources for development of products and the eventual testing and purchase of
products. Companies like Microsoft often launch primarily in the US and then
“roll out” across the world. The UK doesn’t tend to fall too far behind in this
pattern.

Recently, however, we appear to have been given a distinct cold shoulder by
Microsoft.

The XBox Dashboard was recently significantly improved, using a
CoverFlow-style interface with a customisable avatar. It looks and works like a
dream. The US also got the benefit of integration of the Netflix service onto
the XBox dashboard. Now, not only does the XBox Video Marketplace allow
downloading of HD-quality films for watching at leisure, using the Netflix
service users can stream HD-movies at any time – no need to wait for the
download to occur. Netflix do not operate in the UK, so we don’t get this. Why
don’t they arrange something with LoveFilm.co.uk, who offer a similar
service?

The rival MP3 player from Microsoft, Zune, has never been available in the UK
officially. The Zune is intended to compete with the Apple iPod. The iPod is
unfortunately becoming synonymous for this particular technical gadget but there
is so much more to this market than just iPods. Creative and many other vendors
create MP3 players with a wide variety of features. Microsoft were keen not to
get too far behind on this so launched Zune as a means of listening to music,
but the “USP” was the ability to share music with your friends and buy music
wirelessly using the Zune Marketplace. Your Zune ID was the same as your Windows Live ID which is the same as your XBox Live ID, creating a real ecosystem of identity and technologies. Obviously, for Marketplace to exist in the UK, deals would have to be done in the UK which Microsoft don’t seem to be too bothered about. Maybe it is because the market is too small. As the Zune product is
developed, we see the Zune HD now has HD Radio, a technology the UK foolishly
did not adopt, instead we adopted DAB which is poorer quality than FM (in
practice). So they are pushing us further out of the door, reducing the glimmer
of hope that they may just change their minds in the future. The UK is left in
the clutches of Apple.

At the recent E3 Gamers conference, Microsoft announced a number of exciting
new features for the XBox. One of which was the rebranding of the Video
Marketplace which allows the downloading of videos form the XBox servers at a
small fee. This will be rebranded as “Zune Marketplace”. Indeed, the XBox itself
already provides some degree of integration with Zune devices. Where does this
leave the UK? Will we receive this branding and how will it afect us other than
a few colour changes on the XBox dashboard? Again we don’t know where the UK
will stand.

Microsoft Money is being abandoned (Guardian article), due largely to the success of the Quicken product by Intuit. Microsoft have committed to help users migrate to Quicken as part of a programme of future versions. Unfortunately, Intuit abandoned the UK years ago, so where does this leave UK Money users in need of budget accountancy software?

Hulu has been added to the Windows Media Centre, allowing access to their wide variety of video content direct from your PC or Media Centre environment. Hulu is not available anywhere other than the US. Media Centre content such as Extras which can include content direct from channels is also excluded from UK use. We used to have BBC content, but they pulled it when they reviewed their digital content output. Obviously this is not Microsoft’s fault but I think there needs to be
some effort made in replacing and securing new content for UK users.

Isle of Man TT: Rumour control

This year’s TT has been particularly enjoyable, mostly because I have been
able to take some time off and watch the racing. Until changing my employment, I
would have been involved in the publishing of the live timings over the internet
on the iomtt.com site. I would be in the middle of it all (physically and
metaphorically) and see very little of it.

Last night’s unfortunate incident involving Nick Crowe and Dan Cox reminded me of the problems involved with managing rumour control, particularly when potential injuries (or worse) may have been sustained. The racing and practice sessions were subject to delay due to typically bizarre Manx weather which included the sun “cracking the flags” in Douglas but the West of the island awash with severe rain, which included hailstones at one point. This resulted in quickly rescheduled sessions, the Sure Sidecar 2 race being moved to 18:15.

During the session, in the continuing and exciting competition between Dave
Molyneux and Dan Sayle’s outfit and Nick Crowe/Mark Cox’ outfit, Crowe fell
victim to more bad luck when first he appeared to disappear off the live timings
and then news came through that his outfit had caught fire. The exact details of
how this occurred are as yet unknown but may be linked to the poor reliability
of the outfit during the TT fortnight (and previous). Clearly, a fire on the
course is a serious issue and the Marshals were quick to red flag the race, that
segment of the track was sealed off and outfits sent back to the Granstand in
both directions (an interesting site for sure). No word came until later about
the condition of the two men, so rumour grew based on the actions of the Clerk
of the Course, helicopter dispatch and the ensuing “radio silence”.

Consider the timeline of events:

18:15: Race starts. Crowe and Cox are first off in #1, followed 10 seconds later by Molyneux and Sayle in #2.

18:28 (approx): Molyneux and Sayle appear at Ballaugh Bridge timings, ahead of Crowe and Cox. Crowe and Cox do not pass through Ballaugh Bridge. Clearly, something is wrong at this point. Live timings show a “disappeared” outfit which leads one to suspect further reliability problems (though this is not highlighted, you need to keep an eye out).

18:30: Red Flag is shown, terminating the race. So something serious has occured which may have caused or may cause harm to riders.

18:33: The cause of the red flag is confirmed to be a machine on fire at Ballacob (shortly before Ballaugh). Although no confirmation of which machine, it would be clear which one it would be most likely to be, that of Crowe and Cox in #1.

19:24: Helicopter carries riders to Nobles Hospital.

19:37: Sure Sidecar 2 race is confirmed to have been abandoned and will not re-run this year.

Rumour then started to get out of control, with speculation on the cause and
injuries sustained by the riders becoming uncontrollable. Traditionally, this
had started on the iomtt.com forums. Severe results were claimed, death/injuries, all of which were unsubstantiated. This post has now been removed, by a (ex)colleague who knows more on this than me and is very good at dealing with these issues. In previous years, particularly during the aftermath of the fatal incident on the final lap of the Senior race of 2007, this resulted in whoever was covering the race and the administration team for the forums to clamp down on the forums and attempt to control rumour.

The controlling of rumour tended to be clarification of actions and deletion
of posts which speculated or claimed to be aware of the aftermath of an
incident, which would include relatives or friends of the victims, even if they
were aware of the details. This would understandably create resentment that we
were “preventing discussion” and “being difficult” in wishing the affected
individuals well. What we were actually doing was working to prevent rumour
affecting the affected parties, those close to the affected parties and the
event and organisations attached to the event. I do remember in 2007 that posts
were posted that frequently claimed knowledge of the effects of the incident
which I had to delete using my mobile phone while inbetween internet
connections.

The interesting difference this year, however, was the Twitter effect.
Whereas a forum can be controlled by a moderation team, which may provide an
opportunity to provide some information to the users based on established fact,
Twitter is impossible to moderate, let alone control. At about 9pm, Twitter was
already carrying rumours from the iomtt.com site, which then started to create
another wave of unsubstantiated gossip. I then started to receive text messages
on my mobile from people telling me the riders were in a Liverpool Hospital
(this morning, news came that they were actually in Nobles).

Whereas previously, press agencies and “rumour control” could control the
channels of communication, publishing news only when they were confident
affected parties would not be offended or unnecassarily upset, the modern web
has moved away from this. From forums to Twitter to Live Timings, information is
being published and understood faster than ever before. The Live Timings service
is controlled, but the lack of times for Ballaugh and no news on the condition
of the riders only contributes to rumour. (That said, the person who updates the
news is very qualified and able – but it is a difficult job)

The iomtt.com site currently has this update.

By embracing new media such as web sites and live timing services, the
authorities need to consider that news travels much faster than ever before and
rumour can grow beyond established fact. This rumour needs to be controlled and
the only way to control rumour is to be up front and honest on the facts as soon
as possible. This puts the PR people in the driving seat by focussing attention
on an official source of information, which itself discredits claims of fact
from other sources. Maintaining a professional radio silence is not the answer.
Fans of motorsport follow their favoured riders religiously, particularly at the
TT where many fans know riders directly. Feeding correct information in a timely
fashion, even if in a drip-drip fashion, is essential to reducing the
opportunity for rumour to get beyond realty.