[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: For BlackBerry Users, a New Way to Write

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Thu Sep 9 09:53:06 PDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.

OK, this may push me off the fence to buy one...!


khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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For BlackBerry Users, a New Way to Write

September 9, 2004


IN the annals of consumer electronics, certain devices have
proven so compelling, they've created consumer cults. You
know, Mac heads. Palm freaks. TiVoholics. 

Among the white-collar crowd, though, one particular gizmo
has earned a street nickname all its own: CrackBerry.
That's a reference to the RIM BlackBerry, an addictive
wireless palmtop that displays your e-mail in real time, as
it arrives. The airports and commuter trains on both coasts
are filled with BlackBerry fanatics, hunched over, eyes
glazed, flailing at its microscopic alphabet keyboard with
their thumbs callused in funny places. 

But for all its popularity among executives and
financial-industry types, the BlackBerry is practically
unknown to everyone else. RIM hopes to change all that with
the BlackBerry 7100t, which it unveiled yesterday. (The
device, with phone service from T-Mobile, will go on sale
next month.) 

RIM believed that everyday consumers avoided the original
BlackBerry for two reasons. First, the price was way too
high: $500 for the BlackBerry, plus about $30 a month for
Internet service on top of a voice plan. That one was easy
to fix; the 7100t costs only $200, plus $60 a month for
both unlimited Internet and 1,000 anytime phone minutes. 

The second reason is that the BlackBerry's Thumbelina
keyboard is nearly three inches wide. Recent BlackBerry
models are also cellphones, and three inches is awfully
wide for a phone. As you walk down the street, you feel as
if you're talking into a frozen waffle. 

The new 7100t is, therefore, much narrower (2.3 inches). In
fact, it's nearly the same size and shape as a standard
non-folding cellphone. 

But what about the keyboard? A full set of alphabet keys
wouldn't fit; for proof, RIM's designers had to look no
farther than the popular Treo 600 (the BlackBerry's obvious
rival). The Treo has a full alphabet keyboard - but even
though the phone itself is wider (2.4 inches), its keys are
the size of hydrogen atoms. 

A standard 10-key phone keypad was out of the question,
too; trying to compose e-mail on number-dialing keys is
like trying to mow Yankee Stadium with fingernail scissors.

So once again, RIM devised something nobody had ever tried
before: a keyboard with 20 keys. 

The payoff is obvious; compared with standard cellphone
keys, these are positively gargantuan. There are only five
keys on each row, so even the beefy of thumb will have no
trouble hitting the right keys. Of course, now the
screaming question is: how do you produce 26 letters and
all the numbers when you have only 20 keys? 

RIM's solution was to double up. Most of the keys have two
letters painted on them; for example, the top four keys are
labeled QW, ER, TY and OP. You just hammer away at the keys
you want, ignoring the gibberish that may appear at first.
By the time you complete each word, the phone's software
has consulted its database of 35,000 words and deduced your
intentions. It's a crazy, way-out plan, but it actually

For example, suppose you want to type the word pig. You'd
tap the OP, UI and GH keys. Of course, those combinations
could also trigger words like OUG, PUH and OIG - but pig is
the probable choice, so that's what you get on the screen. 

But what if you really want "pug," which requires the same
three keys? (Maybe you raise dogs for a living.) 

In that case, you watch a second, highlighted display just
below your insertion point. It shows all possible letter
combinations, no matter how strange-looking, that could
result from the keys you've pressed so far. If the software
starts to go off track, you highlight the correct
interpretation using the side-mounted thumb dial or the
Next button. 

Fortunately, you'll rarely have to resort to this
irritating interruption. In the opening paragraph of this
column, for example, the BlackBerry's software choked only
once (on "TiVoholics"). 

Three factors conspire to make the typing process tolerable
and - once you're rolling along - even enjoyable. First,
the BlackBerry learns new words (like a street address or
"TiVoholic") once you've corrected them, and preferred
interpretations (like pig vs. pug) after you've corrected
the phone twice. 

Second, the BlackBerry's software saves you time in myriad
little ways. You can omit periods, apostrophes and
capitalizing the first words of sentences. (Just hit the
Space bar twice after a sentence to supply both the period
and the initial capital.) The Space bar also supplies
symbols in e-mail addresses; if you type "billg microsoft
com" in an e-mail address box, you get billg at microsoft 

.com. And to produce an uppercase letter, you can just hold
down the relevant key a half-second longer than usual. 

Finally, all of this typing takes place on one of the
brightest, highest-contrast color screens you've ever seen
on a cellphone. You even have a choice of font and size for
all the text displays, which, together with the unusually
broad, brightly lit keys, makes this gadget especially
friendly to the over-40 set. 

As on existing BlackBerry models, the screen isn't
touch-sensitive; instead, you roll the thumb dial to select
a menu or icon, and push inward to select it. Navigation is
foolproof, thanks to the dedicated Back button on the side.

Corporate e-mail users really have it made; their
BlackBerries, backed at the office by something called
enterprise server software, are real-time mirrors of their
PC in-boxes. Reply on the BlackBerry, find the reply in
your Sent Mail box back at the office. 

Everyone else will have to settle for a system in which
your e-mail (including AOL or Hotmail) is wirelessly
auto-forwarded, every 15 minutes, to your phone (and to a
special Web site, for your traveling convenience). When you
return to your Mac or PC, you'll have no indication that
you replied, composed, filed or deleted messages on your
BlackBerry. On the other hand, you can open up Word, Excel
and PDF files right on the phone. 

When it comes to Web browsing and chatting, the 7100t
promises to be much friendlier than its BlackBerry
predecessors. AIM, Yahoo and I.R.C. instant-messaging
programs are built right in, and RIM says that the Web
browser will show all graphics and fonts, formatted to fit
your screen. (These programs aren't yet complete, so you'll
have to take RIM's word for it.) 

All the usual calling features are here: speed dialing,
three-way calling, caller ID and so on. The address book
and calendar sync by U.S.B. cable with a Windows PC (or,
with the addition of a $30 add-on from 

pocketmac.net, with a Mac). 

Remember that it's a T-Mobile
phone, meaning that you may not have service outside of big
cities. On the other hand, it's a four-band G.S.M. phone,
meaning that it works just the same in 135 other countries
(at higher per-minute rates). The new BlackBerry even has a
Bluetooth transmitter, so that from the depths of your
pocket, it can connect with a headset without a wire. (The
Bluetooth feature doesn't work for file transfers, alas -
only headset communication.) 

Battery life is only average: four hours of talk time,
eight days of standby. As a pleasant consolation, you can
recharge your BlackBerry from a laptop's U.S.B. connector
when you're on the road. 

If you love the idea of a thoughtfully designed phone that
also does e-mail and instant messages, the BlackBerry 7100t
is a terrific new candidate, but it sure doesn't make your
buying decision any easier. One of its competitors is the
Treo 600: available from all five big cellular carriers,
has a built-in digital camera, contains superior calendar
and address-book programs and runs thousands of add-on Palm
programs - but it costs more than twice as much ($450),
lacks Bluetooth and has those infinitesimal keys. Another
rival is the T-Mobile Sidekick: built-in camera, full
alphabet keyboard with comfortably spaced keys, reasonably
priced ($250) - but it's much bulkier than its rivals and
it lacks Bluetooth. 

Of the three, the BlackBerry 7100t offers the lowest price,
the smallest size and the biggest keys. In designing a
20-key typing pad, RIM thought way, way outside the box,
gambling that people wouldn't mind spending half an hour or
so learning to trust the word-guessing software. If that
bet pays off, a whole new generation of noncorporate users
may join the CrackBerry crowd. 

E-mail: Pogue at nytimes.com 



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