Switched On: Writers on the Storm

What happens when the efficient menu-driven user experience of the BlackBerry meets the discoverable new user experience of finger-driven touch? The answer for the BlackBerry Storm has been that the BlackBerry experience wins, and who loses depends on what you were expecting from RIM’s first departure from a physical keyboard. While adorned with a few on-screen buttons and simple gesture support, the Storm is much less of an iPhone-like experience than, say, the T-Mobile G1.

The Storm’s main advantage over other BlackBerry devices is that it has a larger screen, not necessarily one that is controlled by touch. However, to accommodate the removal of its trademark keyboard, RIM has taken touch-screens into a literal new dimension by requiring users to depress the screen to activate a button on the screen, which lowers and springs back like a giant keyboard key.

The screen’s ability to respond to presses as a physical button (like the trackpad in Apple’s new MacBooks), helps provide a more natural feel to typing on the Storm; the feedback is certainly more satisfying than the solely visual feedback that the iPhone gives. Just because it feels good, though, doesn’t mean you should do it.

While the screen’s response may result in faster proficiency particularly as it (unlike the iPhone’s keyboard) can be used in landscape mode while sending e-mails, fast typists may be frustrated to find that the screen sometimes cannot return to its “up” position fast enough to be ready for the next letter.

And then there is the issue of editing the inevitable typos that tapping out text on virtually any smartphone entails. It’s unfortunate that RIM – while retrofitting a touch screen with so many of its user interface conventions — decided to ignore a well-received BlackBerry navigation aid in the scroll ball that HTC has implemented well in conjunction with the T-Mobile G1’s touch screen.

A scroll ball makes it easy to get between letters for editing. And with no iPhone-like magnifying glass user interface convention or other method for dynamically zooming in on small text, spot-editing on the Storm can be a frustrating tight squeeze. The Storm will usually provide a word or menu of words to replace the mistyped one, but navigating it too can be thorny in the limited on-screen real estate with the keyboard on-screen.

The classic BlackBerry form-factor represented by such handsets as the Curve, 8800 and now Bold was itself a screen upgrade from the first BlackBerry two-way pagers. With the rise of the Web and media demanding a bigger screen, though, there is potential for a BlackBerry with a side-sliding keyboard (similar to HTC’s Touch Pro) that delivers an even more comfortable keyboard and the large screen while restoring the sense of proportion in the user interface at the expense of a little girth.

The typing feedback provided by the Storm represents an advance over those that offer only visual or haptic feedback, but for many of the BlackBerry’s biggest fans — even outside of Soviet Russia — the clickable keyboard will depress you.