Battle: the fruits of today’s tech landscape

an unusual, untechnical, highly subjective yet informed comparison of Blackberries and Apple iPhones


To have some background on what’s happening you might need to know that I come from the world of Blackberry. A few years ago in Sydney i walked in a store to replace my phone and walked out with a BB 9900 which in my opinion was the first ever smartphone in my life which could meet all my expectations right out of the box. Everything worked as I expected it will, elegant, fast, to the purpose.

… the end: they lived happily ever after … almost.

Years passed by and I started consulting back to a multitude of companies on their UX and development projects. In addition to that I landed a CTO role — a startup in San Francisco — whereabouts my daily tasks involve UX under conditions where majority of the clientele uses [guess what?!?] iPhones as their primary handset. Here came an important decision point where there were basically two pathways in front of me. One, let my convenience overcome the need of serving my clientele better. Two, let my clientele push me into the gloomy world of Apple’s vendor lock-in circle. Already had used a recent iPhone from time to time to test our application — for those moments it wasn’t that bad. Daily use of that platform may also help me understand requirements which have false sounding at first sight, yet later they turn up to be habits of iOS users.

Decision has been made. I will favour my clientele and lean my head in the dungeons of unescapable vendor lock-in. What have I got to loose anyways? I own a mac … they say it’s integrated to the fullest. Let’s give it a try…

Early feelings

We start from the point where my unwanted yet clearly needed journey begins with first putting my SIM into an iPhone 5. First and foremost and most accurately I could describe my daily paranoia as “Ooooooh my gooood this thing will break in my pocket, if not that then I will drop it … “ envisioning a crashed phone similar to those what turn up after drop tests. It’s too light, edges are sharp — not too easy to handle or safely grip. This sounds ridiculous but think about it for a moment; daily frustration of the damn thing breaking, how this affects your productivity? Needed at least two weeks to overcome this and switch to I don’t really care if it breaks — the handset is replaceable my lost time is not.

Next came the user interface which at first glance feels like a child’s toy — all colourful, stuffed with transparency and animation. That shouldn’t bother me, should it? Well it did. Again the lost time while I look at unwanted and unneeded eye-candy instead of just opening that email or app … at least this is fixable in “Accessibility settings” — I still don’t have a clue why there, but at least I found it.

Oh, the settings … I could safely say that to logically built up brain majority of the settings are at the wrong place buried in several levels of menus. Meh, I’ll get used to it — you don’t constantly alter them so I will need to fight myself thru them only once so that’s not a major issue.

Leaving those feelings behind and intentionally not letting them ruin our cold start, let’s see how the best selling phone of all times performs in the real life business world.

“We get to know each other by living together”

My daily comfort and the handset’s ease of use is obstructed by a few little things which only come to light after a few weeks. You feel itchy as you constantly need to squeeze your brain around them. The lack of real configuration options just render these even more disturbing.

— Sound profiles

You move thru your day. First you wake up and disconnect your phone from the charger — at this point my Blackberry immediately switches profiles so everyone’s call now rings and all the messages that happened to pop in have some audible feedback. When you jump into your car you put that phone in a case — where the BB will switch to another profile with louder tones for everything, helps me hear those calls of “let’s prepare for the meeting you’re heading to” whilst constantly cursing as I fight my way thru traffic to the city. Arriving to the client, I will need certain people to reach me — I comfortably flick one and set vibrate only which I know is already set-up to let those vastly important people disturb me, no one else. After all this I arrive home, go to bed and put the phone on charger which changes itself to the “bedside” profile.

This here, with an iPhone is unachievable. You only have that switch on the side which let’s you “mute” the phone and have a choice of having the buzz whilst mute or not. You have the “do not disturb” mode which even let’s you reject all calls except one group, your favourites. So if I try really really hard that can be imagined as three “profiles”, but come oooon. Bad news to apple, iPhone fell short making me feel comfortable.

— In-call controls

One small piece here is missing on the majority of my calls. The beloved Blackberry of mine has a hardware mute button on the side, placed neatly between the volume rockers.

That might sound useless and not all phone users or frequent conference call goers understand why am I so obsessed with this? People usually leave their phone on mute on a boring conference call anyways right? Well … I don’t do boring conference calls.

Imagine that situation when you’re on a fairly important conference call. You happened to be allergic to half of the season’s vegetation which leads you constantly sneezing. Now on the iPhone I need to move the phone away from my ear to wait for it to light up the screen sensing it’s no longer pushed to my flesh, try and locate the mute button from the six identical buttons on screen, try not to hit “speaker” instead, mute the call, sneeze, locate the now red “unmute” button and put the phone back to my ear. During this seemingly negligible period of time, missing important parts of the point of the speaker or just slight tone changes in their voice which sometimes contains much more information than the words themselves.

— Notifications

When you’re used to a Blackberry’s “list of things that happened ordered by time” style presentation of all the important things you experienced, you will be quite stunned to see how this goes on the other side of the platform wars.

Here I will need to mention one thing which is only a plus because I come from Blackberry’s OS7. When you receive a multitude of notifications on your lock screen, you flick the notification it will take you straight to that piece of message or thread or app where the notification came from. However on Blackberry OS10 this feature is there tough I haven’t used it nor OS10 at all.

Back to the list where I see everything that happened … Hey look, I got a call from my friend who then posted to Facebook shortly before my client called who then sent me an email right before another client’s email. One list. All I need to know right?

Now let’s see how this works on the best selling smartphone ever. You have at least seven apps of which each and every app has it’s own badge on the app icon which is quite confusing. Your only chance of seeing these notifications is after you’ve received them on your lock screen — if you have opened up your phone and would have a glance again on that list? Bad luck. You can try and pull out “notification centre” from the top, from where notifications tend to vanish for no reason but you’re sometimes lucky enough to see year old unread messages from your spam box on your mac. You’ll just have to remember. Okay the system wide search feature Spotlight helps you a bit, but not much.

— “there’s an app for that”

If you know an iPhone user you must have heard above phrase. Hereby I confirm it’s a hundred percent true. Sometimes it’s even good for you as you might find some elegant ways of doing dull tasks faster or entertain yourself easier. BUT … just let me recall that time with my Blackberry when I felt the desperate need of an app for whatever reason? I couldn’t and the problem is not with my memory. I just could do my daily tasks without additional apps for everything.

— Calendar

No, no, no I’m not going to say that the calendar on the iPhone is bad. I’m just going to say it lacks some features which the business professional loves to have. I have meeting with X, Y and Z. Hmm I don’t really know who is Z, let me check it out.

On the iPhone I pull out the LinkedIn app search for the contact (misspell her name at least three times) try to figure out which company she works for switching back and forth in-between the apps.

Now on a Blackberry I tap the person’s name directly from the calendar entry and the next screen will tell me where did we meet in the past, to where are invited in the future, some info on the company the participant works for, their Facebook profile link, their LinkedIn profile data (found by name and company), notes from prior meetings if any, recent emails from the person and call logs / text messages / Facebook posts / LinkedIn updates if any.

— Email

If the above rant wasn’t enough this will frustrate the hell out of you. Ok, I accepted that I cannot see all my communications within one list as described above. I won’t say I’m happy with it, but accepted it.

Then it comes to email where you usually communicate in threads with people. That drives my need to see all my email sorted by time and grouped by threads or by people right? Now that’s another thing which is not an option on an iPhone. If you have two (I have four) separate accounts, let alone those accounts are hosted by different providers, you will need to switch back and forth between the accounts. At least if you’re google hosted you can use the “all-mail” folder to somewhat emulate the behaviour and drive yourself in the false bed of feeling you see all your email at once. Sad news alert! You don’t — that’s just one account. This leaves you with constant scrolling thru the message list and not having a clue how you misplaced that email you’ve just read? That’s your other account mate.

Yes, you can combine all your accounts forwarded into one and then choose the “from” address based on the original recipient manually blablabla … I’ve read the suggestions on the internet. But that’s not how I want it.

One other thing missing in email handling is that you should be able to set deadlines along with the flags and type of deadlines like ‘call back’ or ‘follow up’ on emails, not just the status “flagged” by itself. Okay, okay I accept that Blackberry has ten years advantage in this field — everyone is good copying the other player’s good side, so why not learn from them?

Eeek, ohh, uh, you might think this will go further downhill from here? Well actually in the next part you will be pleasantly surprised as this “unwanted marriage” has positive sides as well.

Communication, communication and communication

What does the phone do? Let’s you communicate with your contacts in whichever way you might choose wherever you are.

The iPhone (apart from above loathed daily griefs) performs pretty well in assisting my communication with my business partners and friends too. This is partly caused by the fact that they tend to have iPhones and partly because the interface and the integration with my mac is well thought after. Here are a few good examples on what all other manufacturers miss out where Apple rides the wave of the opportunity that they happened to do phones and laptops along with tablets. (Microsoft, here’s the good example. Why don’t you just learn from it?)

— iMessage

Every Blackberry user along with some non Blackberry users are aware of BBM. I would say that decent majority of BBers went thru the hell of having their phone bridged to their PlayBook which in turn was hooked up to a bluetooth keyboard and at the same time connected to a HDTV just for the sake of having a bigger screen and a full size keyboard to bang in your messages to whomever you might want to nag thru the day. Now with iMessage and a mac notebook you get this experience in a brighter package tough with questionable security as all your messages will travel thru iCloud — encrypted, but … you know. The experience itself is seamless and feels like everything should work like it. You will get delivery and read reports both on your phone and on your laptop. If your notebook was offline for a period of time, it will sync up in 2–3 seconds and you’ll have it all everywhere. Sharing photos, videos, and voice notes couldn’t be easier. Group chats work like a breeze. You can instantly switch to a voice call from a text chat + you get to choose where you continue your chat, on your Mac or on your phone or tablet. Awesome.

The icing on the cake is that when you send a text message to one of your contacts who owns an iPhone and has iMessage enabled on the phone, it will switch to iMessage instantly which will save you some on the bill and will let you use the nice features described above without any invites and all the likes. Imagine if I’d send you text message from my BB to your BB and BANG! we’re on BBM magically. Yes, security. Yes, you cannot send a normal SMS later on easily but hey, it’s still awesome.

— Virtual keyboard

No, I won’t go the usual way of flooding everyone with the bullshit of real qwerty versus touch keyboards. Instead just tell you for some background that I have always preferred hardware keyboards on Blackberries and didn’t even had the slightest thought of switching to a full touch device like the Z10 or Z30. Never.

Never in my life have I used a touch keyboard until now which is actually usable for serious typing needs. Now that I see how it should work … I did think about trying BB’s approach on the same thing.!

In general I communicate in at least two languages during my day. That leads to word prediction hell on most platforms I tried in the past but not on the iPhone. A simple, yet elegant way of switching languages is implemented on the keyboard. You simply tap the little globe icon and voila your keyboard changes the layout and your word prediction dictionary lists only those words that can be relevant in the context with grammar checks and grammar rule based word replacements. It’s quite nasty in Hungarian (being one of the two most difficult languages in the world) to do this — believe me.

A small and for the business user irrelevant downside tough is that you need to enable an additional keyboard to be able to “say” picture emojis. If you just type “ ;) “ it stays this way. If you type the same set of characters in iMessage tough it sends a picture emoji which is not consistent if you consider the level of integration mentioned above.

— Verbal communication

If I would start with the sound quality of LTE based calls I would say nothing new and I might safely assume that it would be same or similar if I’d take any other LTE device. But there are other means of verbal communication paths one of which is Skype. Yes Skype. It makes it’s way deep into the business users’ toolchain so it worth mentioning that iOS Skype is the least battery hog of them all. On any other platform if you plan to do a Skype call during your day on your phone you make sure you pack your charger. Now on the iPhone with the newest version of Skype I would risk to say that it eats up less battery opposed to a normal LTE / 3G phone call. This is a pleasant surprise — don’t know if I should thank Microsoft or Apple for this but in either case is a great relief of wall hugging for me.

— iCloud

Even before I start to write anything in this paragraph I hear the woos and boos of all paranoid security lovers of whom I happened to be one of. Why would you even consider syncing your stuff to a 3rd party? Because it will stay encrypted with your AES256 key and it’s fricken convenient to have all your data anywhere you go. Okay, not literally ALL your data but a decent portion of it which will make you feel comfortable.

Just browsing the web and found an awesome article on your laptop. Closed it and took off to the city where you get totally stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident. You flick open your phone and with 2 taps you see what tabs were open on your desktop Safari where you left off.

You go to that website you don’t frequently visit and forgot the password. It was similar to “e$r %gv.FQ)8,@\” but you cannot recall it. No problem! Your encrypted keychain is there to help you out. If you ever logged in from your laptop and decided to save the password to that keychain all you need is your keychain password and all others are at your service.

That is not all. This cloudy thing can sync heaps of other stuff for you but I’m not here generate marketing winds — best part, you can decide what you would like to sync and what not (at Apple’s premises the ‘you can decide’ option is not the default that’s why I’m happy about it). I partly gave up my paranoid costume for the convenience which this adds in to the whole experience.

So what now?

Next step will surely be to stay here on this platform for at least a version upgrade or two — especially taking into account that IBM recently partnered Apple which might help shoving out all these issues. In addition to that the further integration what apple promises for the next version of their desktop and mobile OS will worth the wait even if one has to struggle daily with the pesky parts of the user experience. In the meantime the changed winds of Blackberry might attract me back keeping the half eaten apple as a secondary sidekick for testing purposes only, but at the moment I don’t see clearly what would that turning point be which would lean me back from the convenient vendor locked in world where I’m currently at. Hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel as honestly I would want my Blackberry back every other day as it was just so much more to the purpose and uniquely mine.

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