Engineering change at RIM – user experience, mobile computing, customer expectations.

Interesting Engadget interview with Thorstein Heins on engineering change at RIM.

Heins’ comments about taking time to nail the user experience and get mobile computing right sound good. Those are things that were starkly apparent when comparing BlackBerry against Android and iOS when the present market leaders started to gain traction. It was clear they were becoming true mobile computing platforms, to the point that people were willing to pay their own money to bring them into the office instead of company issued phones.

At first, IT departments tried to stamp out any non-issued company phones for business use, but in the past 2 years “bring your own device” has become common vernacular and topics in CIO magazines. All it took were the first senior executives saying that they wanted to switch for underlings to also get the option as a matter of company policy. Another indication of that shift in the market was RIM’s release that put a firewall between the business and personal hemispheres of a BlackBerry’s brain, so a remote kill could be executed on the former without affecting the latter.  It’s funny to think that Android was only released in 2008 and the iPhone in 2007, or the Kindle is only 5 years old now. Mobile computing technology moves very fast and has changed the world very quickly.

Comparing BlackBerry at the time, it was/is a faultless communicator – phone, email, text, BBM, unified inbox, Exchange/BES, network operations center guaranteed delivery. But you could plainly see the difference between platforms in being able to do things that you normally needed a computer for, or in the user experience when browsing with your finger on a big screen vs. a roller ball on a smaller one. Initially people scoffed at the toy / non-professional aspects, but the same interaction design ideas from games made their way into how not-games worked, and have become ingrained in people’s mental models of how things should work.

Same kind of thing has happened in consumer web applications vs. enterprise. Once people are shown an easier, better way to do things in products, that becomes their expectation elsewhere. “Why can’t it…?” SaaS/web based solutions used to be a cute option associated with free webmail, but try selling an enterprise solution these days without a way for customers to just give you money and login to start using the product without on-premise servers and installations. (Sure, there are specific exceptions to this with mission critical or high security enterprise infrastructure, but the general rule holds true.)

In so far as release strategy, I wonder whether it will be possible to exceed expectations with the amount of time BB10 has been talked about. It is encouraging to hear Heins’ comments that there is a renewed energy in the team and would be great to see a return to form with things done right in the time taken. At the same time, delivering exactly what you promised becomes more problematic with less frequent product releases as customer expectations and potential launch complications increase. One reason why “ship early, ship often” is such a popular idea now – customers are much less likely to be upset if they know another update is soon on its way, engineering is happier to keep iterating.

I agree with the idea that software keyboards are the future. They enable things like SwiftKey‘s amazing prediction and correction engine (there is some speculation SwiftKey is powering BB10’s on screen touch keyboard). Swype (and now Android’s) gesture based text entry. Thinner devices. Being able to input text in landscape or portrait mode depending on what makes most sense for the use case. Giving users the flexibility to configure the text entry UI as they wish – make the keys giant for someone with arthritis or vision problems without having to make a separate device. Looking at kids who have grown up with touch screen only devices, the lack of a physical keyboard isn’t impeding their incessant use.

That said, it is good to hear RIM are playing to their strengths around physical QWERTY keyboards. Every senior executive I know who has hammered away thousands of emails on one Blackberry after another for the past 10 years has reiterated how much they want that physical keyboard and how switching to a touchscreen is not going to work for them. There is something to be said for a solid tactile experience that haptic vibration just doesn’t replace yet. Maybe a generation from now, kids will find physical input methods as unfathomable as some do today when you show them a cassette tape, record or even a CD. People have been favouring Apple’s touchpads over mice, Windows 8 is going to bridge the touchscreen gap on desktops and notebooks, hybrid tablet-laptops, Surface, iPads in business meetings, etc. etc.

Although I’m an Android guy these days, I’m rooting for the hometown team to thicken the plot. The more players and options, the better for consumers and innovation. I remember a proud moment 6-7 years ago when travelling on business in Europe, standing in the airport and being pleasantly surprised to see how every business traveller seemed to be using a Blackberry.

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