Is the BlackBerry Storm doomed for lack of Wi-Fi?

RIM's design-out of Wi-Fi dooms the BlackBerry Storm in the same way that lacking essentials have buried the iPhone 3G and Wii -- not at all.

I had already filed my review of the BlackBerry Storm, a.k.a. BlackBerry 9530, when Galen Gruman, an InfoWorld executive editor, pointed out a glaring omission in my review: I neglected to mention that BlackBerry Storm lacks Wi-Fi.

My initial reaction was along the lines of "how could they?" Come on, RIM, did you not survey the touchscreen market before you tossed your hat in? Wi-Fi is just there on the mobile spec sheet template, right next to 3G, GPS, MP3 and H.264. Everybody expects it. I expect it. I shook my head in disbelief that an industry leader like RIM would let this category-defining feature go unimplemented.

[ Get the verdict on the BlackBerry Storm in Tom Yager's full review | Check out even more smartphones in InfoWorld's guide to next-gen mobile ]

It became my duty to take RIM to task for hobbling the otherwise impressive BlackBerry Storm. As I rewrote, my jerked knee began to relax, and the tone changed from "how could RIM leave out Wi-Fi?" to a more relevant question: Would anyone but a reviewer gripe about the absence of Wi-Fi in a BlackBerry that is otherwise stuffed with more features than you can find in a $200 handset?

If I hadn't taken a breath and taken the time to handle BlackBerry Storm and examine its specs again before I rewrote the review from the "absence of Wi-Fi" perspective, I'd have missed the point. Any product can be turned inside out and scrutinized for its apparent lacks. Sometimes it is a product's veering from apparent market-defined givens that makes it a hit. The wisdom of BlackBerry Storm's Wi-Fi design-out is supported by two cases in point, the iPhone 3G and Nintendo Wii, that set a fine precedent.

Weaknesses -- or strengths?

The iPhone 3G, the phone that the market believes has everything, evinces unorthodox apportioning of component costs and other fixed resources like memory, battery life, CPU cycles, and engineers' salaries. By "unorthodox," I mean that no competitor would dare leave out what Apple has. The iPhone 3G lacks Java MIDP, Flash, multitasking, Bluetooth stereo, a serviceable speaker, expandable storage, assignable tactile buttons, and pop-up menus. There is no CDMA iPhone. The iPhone 3G cannot be operated on the networks of buyers' choice. The video-incapable camera is horrid. A Mac is required for application development. Web sites need to be adapted to work well with iPhone. It will never run turn-by-turn navigation.

You could spend all day rattling off what the iPhone 3G doesn't do, and that list makes a definitive case against the success of the iPhone 3G next to Windows Mobile and Symbian devices that suffer none of the iPhone 3G's limitations.

It turns out that buyers don't care what the iPhone doesn't have. It's easy to out-feature the iPhone 3G, but no matter how a vendor loads up a device or how well it points up its technical advantages over the iPhone, the "iPhone killer" is a laughable, unachievable prospect, a hackneyed figment of reviewers' imaginations. It'll never happen. There will be other successful smartphones and perhaps something that supplants iPhone 3G as the baron of buzz, but there will be nothing that thrives because it was designed primarily to do what the iPhone doesn't. The irony is that no device can hope to sell against the iPhone 3G unless it includes everything that Apple left out.

Another product loaded with competitively damning design-outs is the Nintendo Wii. It has no hard drive. It cannot play DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming media. It has no digital video or audio output, and its comparatively weak CPU and GPU strictly limit the classes of games it can run. The Wii's GUI is embarrassingly unhip, its catalog of games anemic and selfishly dominated by retreads of ancient Nintendo icons, and the whole shebang is apparently skewed toward toddlers and octogenarians.

Gaming sites and magazines can't shut up about the Wii's apparent weaknesses, but Wii titles that have been out for months are stuck in the worldwide top five sellers. Sony and Microsoft are trying to emulate the Wii's success with stripped versions of their consoles, but game console design-out only works for Nintendo. There is no prospect of a Wii killer.

Why is it that no one can pick off the iPhone 3G or Wii? Because the qualities that draw buyers to these products can't be bottled or distilled into a features table. Apple is the reason that the iPhone 3G succeeds. The App Store, iTunes, Safari, and the black shiny case can't be co-opted. Mario and armless baseball and tennis-playing blobs with primitive user-assembled faces make the Wii fly off shelves. The roles of Apple and Nintendo have been cast.

The BlackBerry prevails

There will never be a BlackBerry killer, even though no brand has been the subject of such well-funded and aggressive efforts to marginalize it. Push and enterprise messaging, Java, a thumb keyboard, and convenience buttons are commonplace, but a vendor can do all of these and still fail to break the BlackBerry's hold on the enterprise market or users' undying loyalty. That defies logic.

The BlackBerry is slow. It lacks native apps, Flash, an AJAX browser, a GUI that makes you go "oooooh," and with most BlackBerry handsets, Wi-Fi. People don't trample one another to gawk at your new BlackBerry, and people don't camp out overnight to buy the latest model. Few BlackBerry owners have ever downloaded a third-party application. And even though they're capable of it, I've never seen a BlackBerry playing a movie or used as a music player. What the BlackBerry can't do that the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, and Symbian phones can makes a long list, but it doesn't matter. BlackBerry is synonymous with mobile messaging. Only RIM could break that association, and even when RIM ventured into the consumer space, and now that it's in the touchscreen market, RIM never alters its core recipe.

Hand a Storm to a BlackBerry user and the first thing most of them will do is fire up mail and tip the display to landscape to see if widescreen means that they can see more of the Subject line in their inbox view. Can you still use it with one hand? Can you still type with your thumbs? Can you still set up an unlimited number of mailboxes and define client-side rules? Can you still easily scale fonts systemwide to make mail, contacts, and appointments readable at a distance or to cram more text onto the screen? Does a check mark next to an outbound e-mail still mean that the recipient absolutely, positively has it? Does it still run forever on a charge? All right then. The BlackBerry Storm is still a BlackBerry.

It's awfully handsome, it's got GUI frosting, and it costs only $199. Nice. But if RIM drained one iota of BlackBerry-ness out of the Storm, the product would be DOA. You can't copy it, you can't kill it, and no matter how hard reviewers stress the lack of Wi-Fi, a BlackBerry without Wi-Fi is like an iPhone 3G without Java or a Wii without a Blu-ray drive.

As a postscript, the BlackBerry Storm lacks Wi-Fi because Verizon didn't ask for it. When Verizon's exclusive on the 9500-series design expires, any wireless operator that wants Wi-Fi will get it. Wi-Fi handsets will cost more -- I estimate $249 or $299 -- and Wi-Fi may be tossed in to mask shortcomings in coverage plans such as tethering prohibition and low monthly transfer caps.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform