I’m a big fan of BlackBerry. I think they do good stuff: taking care of developers with free devices at dev events, hackathons, and brave and unusual outreach; daring to produce different devices (everyone including me said the PlayBook would suck and was the wrong size, but it was actually a startlingly nice device to use); a kick-ass modern OS (QNX); a user experience that borrows from the best (hello Palm); a great web runtime; excellent financial returns for app publishers; the list goes on.
So when the Z10 hit the shops, I was genuinely tempted to buy one. Nowadays I prefer to buy phones outright, without a contract, so that’s what I aimed for with the Z10.
The first thing I tried was to get one from the BlackBerry website. No luck, they just point you to Pay Monthly retailers. Next I tried Carphone Warehouse and Phones4u online. Not a chance – the phone is only available on contract through those websites. I did find it available from Insight ("marketing description not available"; "Ordered upon Request"), but at £515 I wanted to try it out first.
I went to a nearby shopping centre and found a Carphone Warehouse. Going into the store I spotted the BlackBerry display, where two Z10s were available. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent one was running in demo mode. And the demo was shockingly bad.
When the Palm Pre launched, it had a clever demo mode that showed you the basics of the UI, and then got out of your way so you could try all the apps for real. After a period of inactivity, the demo would restart, and the apps would all be reset. It was a genuinely useful way to get to grips with the phone and what it could do.
The Z10 demo was akin to a PowerPoint slideshow, with no way to get beyond the most basic explanation of a few features.
I asked a salesperson if there was a way to try the phone, and was told that it was the demo or nothing. I assume by nothing he meant the other Z10 on display, which refused to power on.
I hurried out of the store, and found a Phones4U nearby. They also had a big Z10 display, and the phone was also running the annoying demo. Even worse, the phone was locked into a clamp that wouldn’t look out of place on a car wheel. Not only was it impossible to test the device, it was also pretty difficult to even lift it.
At this point I was approached by a salesman, and when I asked if there was a way to try the phone out, he fortunately said he could get a device from the stock room and how me. After a few minutes he returned, and we sat down so he could talk me through it whilst unboxing the device.
During the unboxing he told me some interesting things. "Nearly everyone used to have a BlackBerry", he said, "especially business people."
"This phone has been a long time coming; RIM spend a lot of money on research and so they took a lot of time to get it right."
"The white Z10 is exclusive to Phones4U, you won’t get it anywhere else."
"Loads of stores have sold out, in fact the other branches are phoning us to see if we have any in stock." This caught my interest. I asked how many this branch had received – but the salesman wasn’t able to give me a quantity. "Quite a few," he said.
Finally, the device was ready, and it powered on instantly as soon as the battery was inserted. Soon the loading screen showed, with a nice animated circular fill showing the progress of boot. Once it was up and running, we were prompted to do initial setup. Without a SIM, it quickly became clear that a network connection was needed, and we couldn’t get the wifi in the shop to work. So the test drive was limited to browsing the wifi login page, and going back and forth through the language selection page.
From what I was able to see, it was a very nice device. It had a vibrant display, smooth scrolling, a good form factor, was light but felt robust. I’ve already played with the operating system on the PlayBook, so can imagine it would be pretty effective on the Z10.
I was told that I could buy the phone without a contract, but that it would cost £560 (or thereabouts, I can’t remember the exact number). I would only be allowed the black phone if I wanted it off contract, as the white one was reserved for contract customers.
So at this point, I am unable to fully try out the device before buying one, and my purchasing options off-contract are severely limited. Compare that to Apple, where I can buy an iPhone direct from them either online or in-store. I checked the BlackBerry website: they aren’t selling online. Only one high street chain will let me buy one without a contract, and only one general electronics retailer is selling it (and they didn’t even have an image of the device when I checked).
I previously commented on twitter that the Z10 without contract is practically the same price as the iPhone 5, but with half the memory. I was reminded that the Z10 comes with a microSD slot, so you can upgrade the memory yourself. That’s nice in principal, but it means I need to buy a memory card – which makes the price comparison even less favourable.
So what are we left with? A device that’s impossible to demo, compares unfavourably on price and is difficult to buy outright. Even if I wanted to give BlackBerry my money, they make it almost impossible.
I am a fan, and I want the phone to do well. But this feels less like Lazarus and more like Icarus to me.