RealTime IT News

Software Bugs Are Mobile Phones' 'New Reality'

BlackBerry Storm
The BlackBerry Storm
Source: RIM
Has your smartphone ever locked up? Have you ever found it difficult to navigate? Or is it just downright crash-prone?

If so, you'd better get used to it.

That's the take of Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM). Balsillie told the Wall Street Journal that software snafus are part of the "new reality" facing phone makers and their consumers as new, increasingly advanced products are rushed to market.

Balsillie said RIM (NASDAQ: RIMM) and its carrier partner, Verizon Wireless, managed to ship the BlackBerry Storm only "by the skin of their teeth," even after delaying the product launch by a month. Bit he admitted that the close timing later played a role in user complaints, ranging from sluggish performance to keyboard snafus after its launch.

The news illustrates some of the challenges facing smartphone players and wireless carriers, who are facing unprecedented pressure to deliver the next big device: Competition is at an all-time high, while manufacturers and networks struggle to cope with rock-bottom margins and users who demand devices of ever-increasing complexity.

As a result, the effort to ship the latest crop of devices on time and ahead of the competition often means that quality suffers.

A survey by J.D. Power and Associates late last year found that business users feel beset by software problems with their mobile devices, like frozen applications, system reboots and touchscreen glitches. Kirk Parsons, senior director for wireless services at J.D. Power, told InternetNews.com at the time that such problems could be expected, since that today's smartphones are really mini-computers -- and are prone to the same sorts of errors and crashes.

Software problems aren't alone in proving a headache for users. Apple's popular iPhone 3G experienced network glitches and received upgrades after last June's launch.

Navigating a Storm

But in the BlackBerry Storm's case, reviewers complained about problems navigating its user interface.

RIM did not respond for comment by press time.

The Storm arrived on Black Friday in 2008, a month later than had been initially planned, and was quickly christened by industry watchers as a top rival for the iPhone due to its touchscreen and unique keyboard approach.

The 3G-enabled device was RIM's first-ever model to sport a touchscreen, dubbed SurePress, which replaced the traditional QWERTY keyboard. Users have a on-screen, tactile keyboard that simulates the "clicking" experience of pushing BlackBerry keys. Just like iPhone users, Storm owners also can use a fingertip to sweep screens and to tap between applications.

But problems implementing those features brought a boatload of complaints from users and reviewers. RIM and Verizon Wireless ultimately issued a software update soon after launch that improved touchscreen accuracy and navigation.

A new reality?

Industry observers said that handset makers and carriers need to avoid repeats of such problems if they want to maintain market share.

[cob:Special_Report]"I think by [Balsillie] saying this was a new reality is undermining what this actually does to the consumer," Ryan Reith, IDC senior research analyst, told InternetNews.com. "A negative device experience (especially on an expensive device) can turn off a customer forever."

Reith said Storm user complaints tied to software bugs were the results of rushing the device's testing during development.

"Devices are so highly publicized these days that every day matters, and manufactures are cutting corners that they shouldn't be cutting in order to cut down time to market," he said. "I think this will change as operators find this to be way too big a headache, and ultimately a bad reflection to their client base."

Other handset manufacturers are sure to be tested in coming months, especially as vendors angle to quickly roll out new designs and features that can curb the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone's growing share of the market.

One of the most closely watched launches of the near future is likely to be from Palm, which is slated to debut its new Pre smartphone -- and its radical new software, dubbed WebOS -- by June.

But to show off the Pre and WebOS at the annual CES event earlier this month, the pioneering mobile device manufacturer had to scramble to get the offering demo-worthy, and continues to make tweaks to the offering despite a looming deadline.

Roger McNamee, a managing director and co-founder of Elevation Partners -- one of Palm's major investors -- acknowledged in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Tech Ticker that Palm raced to introduce the Pre at CES since Apple was not making a big splash at the tech show.

Since its moment in the limelight at CES, Palm has not provided review units nor further details about the operating system or the device. Palm has told InternetNews.com both are still in development and that it would not comment further until it has a formal announcement date.

It's not surprising that Palm wants to take as much time as it can to get the Pre right. Analysts have stated that the phone's debut must be perfect, given Palm's shaky stance in the market.