BlackBerry Bold Shows RIM's Shrinking Niche

Jonathan Blum

I am not sure what is the most telling clue to this: the troubles I have trying to take in cutting-edge racing yachts here at the America's Cup Village with a decidedly not-cutting-edge BlackBerry; throngs of international tourists doing the same with their really cool Apple(:AAPL) iPhones, Samsung Notes or even iPads; or the row after row of cellphone stores here slinging anything but Research in Motion(:RIMM) products.

But even I, a believer that tales of RIM's demise are greatly overstated, am beginning to feel BlackBerry Bold is like Venice itself: a lovely piece of ancient history.

RIM lovers need to know this: I have tried -- I mean really tried -- to find an upside for the troubled Canadian mobile device maker. My colleague schlepped over to Orlando, Fla., a couple of weeks back so we could cover BlackBerry World 2012 firsthand. Then, to be fair, we drove AT&T(:T) and RIM crazy setting up a legit global roaming demo for a Bold I would bring here. Then to be extra fair, for a week, everybody in my little world had to deal with me doing every nutty thing possible with this device covering this stop in the America's Cup World Series yacht races, as well as filing tech stories and doing general company work.

The point was to get a real feel for one of RIM's supposed bright spots, its international business worthiness.

Now, this Bold most definitely works. Voice and data service provided by roaming agreements with Vodafone, Wind Mobile and TIM via AT&T was very impressive. But even with this productivity, there was just no shaking the cold certainty I was holding a device that was slowly sinking in the mobile technology lagoon.

Here's why:

Business features remain excellent, but even basic apps are clumsy.

No question, BlackBerrys still are the champ of basic business text, files and emails. The BlackBerry 6 Operating System offers the fastest, most versatile work environment for sending and receiving business SMS, editing documents and managing messages. But step beyond that iron business triangle -- and I mean just a little bit -- and the Bold's clunk factor becomes a business cellphone buzz kill. Simple things such as Facebook(:FB), now a critical business marketing tool, were terribly awkward. The camera, which is becoming an indispensable part of the office collaboration process, is simply awful. And any sort of browser-based Web search attempt resulted in me breaking out my PC.

BlackBerrys work for work. But you will miss the features found on most smartphones.

The BlackBerry keyboard still rules the qwerty seas, but not by much.

As recently as six months ago, the Bold's qwerty keyboard was the industry leader in business data entry. While you can still definitely get work done with this device, comparable models from Motorola(:MOT), LG and HTC also now offer excellent keyboard experiences. That means that if you're in the market for a business phone, be sure to demo all hard keyboard alternatives before committing to a BlackBerry. And be diligent in your testing. Some functions, such as entering capital letters on the Web -- critical for signing into case-sensitive cloud-based services -- did not work well with my test device.

RIM Battery life is still bold -- but probably not for much longer.

This latest generation of BlackBerrys come with standard smartphone bells and whistles: sophisticated touch controls, a camera, audio functions and bright screens. But all these moving digital parts have the same effect as they do on other smartphones: They dramatically shorten battery life. Yes, my test Bold could be used all day on a single charge, but it could not be used all day and all night, as was possible with Blackberrys of old. Battery performance is still worlds better than, say, an iPhone or Samsung Note, but that edge clearly will not last. The iPhone 5 is sure to offer fabulous power consumption, and the coming BlackBerry 10 operating system looks to be a power hog of simply cosmic proportions.

Considering what you give up in terms of apps and multimedia features, having even marginal battery life on a BlackBerry is a deal breaker.

The closing line on the Bold belongs to Paulo, my Venetian rowing buddy. He told me as we rowed, in the ancient standing style past the now utterly useless Forte di Sant'Andrea that once guarded this city from sea invaders, "When technologies change, they change fast. And often there is nothing you can do."

Truer words have never been spoken.