How much work can you do on a BlackBerry?

The laptop-free promise of today’s next-gen mobile devices is put to the test. Can the BlackBerry Bold deliver?

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Clearly, access to customer information and the ability to place orders is essential for salespeople on the go, and a mobile device should be handy for that. But the BlackBerry’s slow performance -- I felt that I spent more time staring at the wait icon and progress bars than actually using the applications -- and awkward app interfaces suggest a laptop or netbook is necessary for customer calls, with the BlackBerry useful only as a backup device.

The apps available at the BlackBerry App World store are not impressive, neither in breadth of offerings nor (in my sampling) in capabilities. And they’re expensive. The store is hard to navigate, and there is no way to look up apps on a PC. App installation is also awkward, with lots of confirmation screens; some even required the BlackBerry be restarted.

Of course, downloading an app is one thing; being able to find it once it has been downloaded is another. Anytime I wanted to use a downloaded app meant a treasure hunt was imminent. Was it in the Downloads folder? The Applications folder? The main folder? Any of the remaining seven folders? This got old fast.

Worst, most BlackBerry apps proved to be pure torture, ones to use only when you can’t use your laptop (or netbook) or write yourself a note for handling later at your desk.

Web and location services: A mixed bag
Accessing the Web on the BlackBerry is rarely a pleasant experience. First, JavaScript is disabled by default, so be sure to turn that on to use most modern sites. Second, navigation is difficult due to the tiny screen, limited zoom-in capabilities, and the BlackBerry’s choice of nonstandard fonts.

The columns view mode does help somewhat, stacking all of a page’s DIVs into a single column so that you don’t have to scroll sideways. The columns mode also tends to enlarge the text size, making it easier to read site contents. Still, you need to have no other option for accessing the Web before you can consider using the BlackBerry’s browser on a regular basis.

[ Developers looking to create their own BlackBerry apps must make several key choices. | InfoWorld’s Peter Wayner explains how to create Web apps for BlackBerrys and other modern mobile devices. ]

Of course, many sites offer a BlackBerry-specific, mostly textual version. These are essential to use the BlackBerry for the Web. When I tried to check a JetBlue flight’s status en route to JFK airport, the standard Web page’s DIVs meant I couldn’t actually get to the flight-status part of the page. Fortunately, the major airlines all have BlackBerry-enabled sites so that you can check flight schedules and so forth. (JetBlue began offering a BlackBerry-enabled site about a week after my access issues.)

These optimized sites are limited but usable. Of course, having a site technically optimized for the BlackBerry doesn’t mean it is optimized for use: Yahoo’s BlackBerry page is so awkwardly constructed, for example, that it’s not practical.

I quickly found myself waiting until I had my laptop before using the Web -- except for specific transactions, such as checking flight or bus status.

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