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Back to the BlackBerry (sort of)

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2015 - 12:00am

This Monday, I’m going to take a break (and give my readers one as well) from my ponderous ruminations on Philippine culture and politics and revert from PenMan to GadgetBoy, that now-overaged fancier of techno-toys who still nurses a naïve faith in technology as the savior of humanity, or at least the bringer of boxed delights.

One of those boxes (in matte black, natch) came my way last month on my US trip, when — shortly before my departure — I discovered that the LG clamshell that I had been using as my US Verizon phone had finally died, refusing to boot up after four years of faithful employment. I’m in the US at least once a year to visit family and attend conferences, so a dedicated US phone has been good to have, which I simply load with prepaid credit when I go there.

Like human life itself, the eventual death of anything digital is a foregone conclusion, but in the case of these gadgets, it’s a passing not necessarily met with lamentation; rather, it’s cause for relief and release, making possible that word that brings joy and profit to every techno-toy maker’s heart, “Upgrade!” I was frankly glad to see the little LG go; it was SIM-less and locked to Verizon, and I wanted a US phone that I could use somewhere else. (My iPhone 6 is unlocked, but as my local mainstay, I can’t afford to switch it over to another network while I’m away. Note to Apple: how about a dual-SIM iPhone?)

Enter — or rather reenter — the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry? Remember, that once-upon-a-time smartphone market leader and innovator, the darling of the business and political crowd? For those born around the time when the world worried not about ISIS but Y2K, the emergence of the BlackBerry and its kickass keypad tore us away from our beloved Palm Pilots and Treos… until the iPhone came along in 2007 and rendered everything else instantly obsolete. (Of course, the iPhone itself has since been periodically upstaged by some Android upstart or other — until the new iPhoneX is announced.)

So the BlackBerry and its shares of stock have languished in the dumps, experiencing a momentary spike only when rumors of a buyout (recently, supposedly by Samsung) skitter through the Web. Which brings up the obvious question: why would anyone still want to get a BB?

That was No. 1 on the mind of BlackBerry CEO John Chen, who in mid-December boldly announced the release of the company’s latest model, the BlackBerry Classic — or I should say, latest but not quite. The BB Classic is premised on the idea that the BlackBerry got to where it did because it stuck true to its most prominent design feature — the physical keypad — and that people still long for solid keys to punch rather than pecking away like mad chickens on a flat screen.

It’s a bold gamble, an appeal to our deepest retro urges, and the design of the Classic revives and reinforces everything we felt about the BlackBerry of old. The Classic, said John Chen, would bring back the old BB faithful who had deserted the platform for the iPhone and Android, typically the more mature business user who felt more comfortable with the tactile keypad, who didn’t mind if their phone came only in black, and who valued security in communications (note that Sony executives hit hard by the Interview hack resorted to BlackBerrys for their fallback). I listened to Chen saying all this to CNN’s Richard Quest and found myself mesmerized — yes, that business user was me, I’d been away from the BB too long, and I missed that keypad like my first serious girlfriend.

Convinced that I needed a new US phone anyway, I ordered an unlocked Classic off Amazon, and had it delivered to my daughter in California in time for my arrival in the US in mid-January. I got a T-Mobile prepaid NanoSIM and a 128GB SanDisk microSD card to complete the package, and was back in BlackBerry heaven.

Sort of. As a phone, the Classic is everything Chen touted it to be — rock-solid, a delight to use, and by far the best in its class (given that it’s a class that graduated six or seven years ago). Externally, it’s the bigger brother of the old BB Bold 9XXX, with the familiar belt, trackpad, and keypad, the square screen, and the rounded corners. It’s a bit heavier than the iPhone, but I don’t mind—my one complaint about the IP6 was that it was so thin I kept panicking to think it was lost. It’s perfect for one-handed operation. The screen is sharp and crisp, the sound is good, and with System 10, you don’t need to go through the old BIS provisioning routine — it’s plug and play.

The downside? As I’d been forewarned, apps are sparse, although the BB can now use many Android apps through Amazon’s AppStore, MobiMarket, and Snap. I was able to get decent versions of many of my favorite iOS apps (WorldMate is BlackBerry Travel, for example); Skype and Viber work just fine, and a free program called Navigation provides useful and accurate street-level guidance. I wanted to give it every chance to become my main phone in lieu of the IP6 — but in the end, I just couldn’t do it, on two accounts: the BlackBerry still has no true equivalent for FaceTime, which for those of us with daughters and mothers in the US is the iPhone’s real killer app, and its camera can’t hold a candle to the iPhone’s, which I and many others use semi-professionally, forsaking our bulky DSLRs.

So I say welcome back to the BlackBerry, and the Classic does live up to its name; it’ll be a great backup phone, for a second or a US line. Buying one in 2015 is a bit like choosing a new car with manual transmission, but oldtimers like me know what fun that can be — sometimes.

* * *

(The BlackBerry Classic is now available in the Philippines from MemoXpress.)

Email me at penmanila@yahoo.com and check out my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

AS I BLACKBERRY CHEN CLASSIC IPHONE JOHN CHEN PALM PILOTS AND TREOS PHONE RICHARD QUEST SKYPE AND VIBER
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