Something New, Something Old From Palm and RIM
When I started researching today's column, I thought I'd hate the Palm Centro and like Research In Motion's BlackBerry 8820. It turns out that I appreciate the Centro more than I expected, while the 8820 bothers me more than I'd imagined.
My frustration with Palm's lack of innovation has been well documented. See, for instance, my fed-up review of the Treo 755p. But the Centro was compact enough and incorporated enough quality third-party software (Documents To Go reads and edits Microsoft Office documents; Pocket Tunes Deluxe plays MP3, WMA and AAC music files) to offer both a decent value and the rarest thing of all in the Palm market -- a sense of novelty.
I had thought that the Centro's compact keyboard alone would sink the device, but I've found that I can thumb-type on it almost as well as I can on larger handhelds -- even after I've forgotten, for two days in a row, to clip my fingernails. And although the operating-system software on the Centro is the same old Palm OS, it somehow hasn't crashed in a week of steady use. Maybe the Internet applications on it include some bug fixes? (In a non-multitasking system like Palm's, the computer is no more stable than its least reliable application.)
Palm's desktop software, however, continues to be an insult to its customers and an embarrassment to its developers. When a company's marketing guy, Palm's Rob Katcher, tells you that the firm expects its Mac customers to spend their own money on a third-party solution (Mark/Space's $40 Missing Sync), something's gone wrong.
The 8820, meanwhile, kept getting on my nerves. I just can't grasp how the same company that designed such stylish, functional hardware as the Pearl and the Curve keeps producing such ugly, awkward software. The developers at RIM appear unable to grasp basic principles of usability, like pruning a menu of irrelevant options and eliminating unnecessary steps. So turning off the 8820's ringer requires going to the home screen, scrolling to the Profiles icon, selecting it and then scrolling to select "Vibrate."
And after testing the iPhone, I can't understand why RIM keeps shipping the BlackBerry with the same ugly, low-res fonts. Would it kill these guys to load typefaces that didn't come from an Atari 2600 or the destination sign on a Metro bus?
RIM's desktop software provided another source of frustration. Aside from the new, but buggy Pocket Mac application provided for Apple users, RIM's software is as out of date as Palm Desktop -- check out the list of supported calendar and address-book programs to see its age. It's also far more annoying to download. RIM's Web site will demand your first name, last name, job title, company, street address, city, country, state and e-mail before it will cough up these downloads. After going through that routine four or five times, I started making up stuff like this:
First Name: stop
Last Name: asking
Job Title: me
Address 1: stupid
The difference between Palm and RIM seems to be that Palm once knew how to create good, even elegant software and may yet do so again. RIM doesn't know and doesn't seem to want to learn.
The Centro is probably the phone I'd buy if I needed a new smartphone today. But any such purchase would be a stopgap, something to tide me over until one of a few things happened:
* Palm ships a phone that multitasks reliably and is notably thinner than even the Centro;
* Apple ships an iPhone with a better notepad program, and for a carrier that reaches the subway parts of the Metro;
* Symbian's software gets faster and, again, comes on a phone I can use on the train here;
* RIM gets religion about usability;
* I can get a good notepad on a Windows Mobile phone without having to carry around a Treo-thick device or run little installer applications in Windows to add every new program.
October 18, 2007; 8:00 AM ET
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