Image: BlackBerry Storm virtual keyboard
Verizon Wireless
The virtual QWERTY keyboard on the BlackBerry Storm is at its best in horizontal, or landscape, mode, where there's one letter or number per "key."
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msnbc.com
updated 12/4/2008 8:47:42 AM ET 2008-12-04T13:47:42

After nearly two weeks on the market, the much-anticipated BlackBerry Storm has lived up to its name, with longtime BlackBerry loyalists frustrated by the smartphone's bugginess, sluggishness and user unfriendliness with its three touchscreen keyboards.

Their rants are shared at several phone and BlackBerry-related Web sites, including Research In Motion's own community support forums, where customers are finding empathy but little in the way of answers from the company that makes the legendary line of business-class phones equipped with e-mail and Web browsing.

"Having used many other Research In Motion devices, I can't remember a device being released with so many bugs," said Allen Nogee, In-Stat Research's principal analyst for wireless technology and infrastructure.

The Storm has been the buzz of the BlackBerry world for much of the year. Its release date was pushed back at least once, from September to November. Perhaps it should have been pushed back more.

"There is no doubt that this device was rushed to market to make the Christmas selling season," said Nogee. "Unfortunately, the decision was made to ship this device with bugs and fix them later, rather than to fix them first, and then sell the device."

That may be so. There are Web postings about software fixes that are on the way to deal with both the Storm's hardware and its operating system.

Little word from RIM
So far, RIM has not commented on the problems of its first all-touchscreen BlackBerry, considered a strong competitor to Apple's touchscreen iPhone.

Verizon Wireless, the exclusive carrier of the device in the United States, has said little, except how well sales have gone. The company, like most, doesn't publicly share sales figures.

When the Storm was released Nov. 21, there were lines of customers outside many Verizon Wireless stores around the country, with the same kind of excitement consumers felt about the iPhone's release.

"This is the fastest-selling device we've had to date," said Nancy Starker, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman.

She referred questions about the phone's performance to RIM, but did say, "As with any phone, there are constant tweaks that are made and pushed to the phone" via the carrier's wireless network.

On its Web site yesterday, Verizon Wireless said it will be Dec. 15 before new Storms are available to be shipped. Some speculate that the delay is to give RIM time to make the needed software and firmware updates to the phone.

The Storm costs $199.99 after committing to a two-year contract with Verizon Wireless and mailing in a $50 rebate.

Keyboard difficulties
Among the problems users report is difficulty with the Storm’s three touchscreen keyboards. In vertical, or portrait mode, there are two choices: RIM's SureType keyboard, with two letters to a key, or a "multi-tap" keyboard that resembles a dial pad. In horizontal, or landscape, mode, there's a QWERTY keyboard, with one character per key.

Image: BlackBerry Storm vertical virtual keyboard
Verizon Wireless
The virtual vertical keyboard on the BlackBerry Storm takes a lot of practice, and is not as intuitive as some might like it to be for a touchscreen keyboard.
Some users feel the keys on all three are too small to get accurate results from touch entry.

When I reviewed the Storm two weeks ago, I'd had it in my possession for less than a day. I felt then, as I do now, that there is a lot to like about it, including its video camera, and the ability to text or e-mail video files, built-in voice-activated dialing — all features lacking in the iPhone.

I wasn't crazy about the keyboards, but didn't know if it was a matter of getting used to them.

Two weeks later, I still like the phone, but am not liking the drudgery involved in tapping out e-mails.

There have also been complaints about slow and laggy performance by the device’s accelerometer, a motion sensor that shifts the screen from vertical to horizontal position.

I find this to be the case — except when I don't want it to shift position. Then, for some bizarre reason, it's like an exorcist has taken over the phone and it shifts when it wants to. That's annoying.

All in all, the phone's performance has been uneven so far, something that seems unthinkable for a BlackBerry.

The Storm uses a “clickable” touchscreen that has received praise for its tactile feedback.

“I really like the touch/click system when it comes to navigating the Storm’s user interface or Web pages,” said Avi Greengart, Current Analysis’ research director for mobile devices.

“However, when applied to the keyboard, the results have been less than ideal so far.”

The Storm, he said, “is somewhat sluggish, and I have found that you can type quickly or accurately, but not both.”

His experience has been that of many others, as well. And among the most vocal are BlackBerry fans, as passionate about their devices as iPhone owners are about theirs.

“This is my Blackberry. There are many like it but this one is mine,” says one devoted user’s tag line on CrackBerry.com “My Blackberry is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my Blackberry is useless. Without my Blackberry I am useless.”

Startling change for BlackBerry alum
What may make the Storm’s problems seem even worse is that many of its owners are longtime BlackBerry customers who are used to having not just a good physical keyboard, but one that is considered the best in the smartphone industry.

And for those trying the Storm as their first BlackBerry, they’re seeing a product that, right now, does not live up to the reputations of its predecessors.

Storm users report various other issues, including a shutter delay with the camera (more so than most cell phone cameras), problems with the media player crashing and general bugginess with the screen and menu entries.

None of this comes at a good time, especially with the economy. RIM has been the smartphone leader in the business world, but the consumer market is a different animal, with more competitors.

Head-to-head battle
Apple and RIM have been battling head-to-head in the smartphone arena, with the iPhone adding features that appeal to the business set, and several BlackBerry models, including the Storm, aiming to have more consumer appeal.

In recent months, RIM released two other models aimed at freshening their lineup and taking on the iPhone.

The BlackBerry Bold, with a physical keyboard, costs $299.99 after a rebate and with a two-year contract through AT&T, the exclusive provider of the Bold in the United States. The BlackBerry Pearl Flip, a first-time clamshell phone by RIM, is offered by T-Mobile and costs $150 after a rebate and committing to a two-year contract.

But it is the Storm that many had been eagerly anticipating.

“If I am going to buy something, I expect it to work,” wrote one Storm user on CrackBerry.com. “I don't think I should have to buy something to wait for a software upgrade to get it to work correctly.”

“I think dumping an unfinished, buggy device on people was pretty shameful and shoddy,” said another.

“Folks need to take a chill pill,” wrote one Storm user on CrackBerry.com. “Are there issues? Sure there are. Would it be nice if Verizon/RIM gave us some straight answers? Yup. But it does work and I'm 150 percent sure that once the updates are delivered the Storm will be what it should have been from the start.”

Nogee, the In-Stat wireless analyst, said he, too, believes “in time, the bugs will be worked out, and the phone will be a good one. But for those plopping down their $200 and signing up for a rather expensive contract, it’s not a very friendly welcome.”

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