Saturday, 23 September 2006

RIM's Pearl: Splendid hardware, unfinished software

For me, the highlight of fall CTIA this year was that I finally got to play with a Pearl, RIM's latest smartphone. It has more media features, plus a miniscule trackball above the keypad for navigation. The trackball is about the size of a pea, and at first glance I thought it would be too small to be usable. But I was very surprised when I tried it. The trackball works very well. It's fast, so you can zip up, down, and sideways very quickly by sliding your thumb. But it doesn't feel loose or out of control. To select something, you click in on the trackball, which was also more intuitive than I expected. When the interface is structured properly, you get into a nice rhythm of roll, click, roll, all without taking your thumb off the trackball.

I especially liked using the trackball for tasks like setting up an appointment. RIM's thumbwheel-optimized interface translates well to the trackball in this case. The program lists a series of variables (start time, end time, date, etc). You navigate up and down this list by rolling the trackball, click to select an item you want to change, and then roll up or down (or sideways) to make the numbers go up and down. It's extremely intuitive, and you can enter complex information pretty darned quickly.

(I'd love to see a music player with a trackball to navigate the playlists. If the software was structured properly, I think it would be easier and more intuitive than the iPod.)

Browsing with the trackball was uncomfortable, largely because the browser didn't show any signs of being reworked for the trackball. I think browsing works best when you have an onscreen pointer that lets you click on things, and the trackball would be ideal for this. But RIM hasn't implemented a pointer in its browser – instead you just move from selection point to point serially, the same as you would with a rocker or a thumbwheel. This was a disappointing missed opportunity.

Lesson to hardware manufacturers – the user interface and pointing device need to be designed together. An interface that's easy for one pointing device is often uncomfortable for another.

The other part of browsing that I hated was entering URL's using RIM's special QWERTY keypad. If you haven't seen this keypad, it arranges the letters in QWERTY format, with two or three letters per key, so the phone can be the width of a regular mobile phone. As you press the keys, the phone is supposed to decode what you're trying to write. This works okay for commonly used words, but stinks for URLs because they are unfamiliar. Also, the keys are so tiny and flat that it was hard to hit them accurately with my big thumbs.

I finally got frustrated and put the phone in multitap mode (where you press twice for the second letter).

I've heard that with training the recognition gets better, and you get used to using the keyboard. Maybe – Graffiti on Palm had a learning curve too, and millions of people put up with that.

I'm also skeptical about the Pearl's market focus. It's being marketed as a media + email phone, for people who want both RIM-powered email and multimedia entertainment. RIM's core users are mid-career business professionals, and I'm not sure how many of them want to be entertained by their phones. Meanwhile, the people who most want mobile entertainment -- those under age 25 -- are not all that interested in professional e-mail. It's hard to picture an entertainment-focused MVNO like Helio marketing the Pearl. Especially since Pearl doesn't have 3G support.

But multimedia aside, the saving grace of the Pearl is its size. It's both lightweight (3.1 ounces / 88 grams) and thin (.57 inches / 14.5mm). That's .1 inches / 3mm thicker than a Moto Slvr, but it's much thinner and lighter than any previous RIM device. I think it's the first RIM product that looks at first glance just like a modern cellphone. If RIM marketed it as a thinner RIM device, and updated the software to take advantage of the trackball, I think it would be a winner.

Because of the multimedia emphasis and the unmodified software, I'm not sure how well the phone will sell. But I really hope we haven't seen the last of the trackball in mobile devices. It's a substantial improvement.

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