Traded in my BlackBerry for an iPhone

I’m going to be a little long-winded here, but with the anticipated announcement of a new iPhone later this morning and having recently read John Gruber’s post about why hardcore BlackBerry users would be unlikely to switch to iPhones soon (hint: no keyboard), I thought I’d comment on that transition, since I just did it a couple of months ago.

I had resisted getting a “smartphone” for a while. I’d had a Palm III in the mid ’90s and didn’t find it something I really integrated with my life. I’d also had some ugly Sprint Phone in the late ’90s that let me browse news headlines and check mail at Yahoo, but it was painful enough to use that I never really got hooked. Then I switch to AT&T for a while for a much nicer phone and realized that, at the time, what I wanted was a phone that worked. When AT&T discontinued TDMA support without having a suitable presence of GSM towers in my neighborhood, I switched back to Sprint with a phone whose sole advantage was a rubberized case that could survive being dropped. I lasted with that for a few years — it worked fine as a phone and wasn’t too large. Given my limited experience with internet-enabled phones and PDAs, the bulky ugliness of BlackBerries and Palm devices, and my general resistance to anything branded as running Windows, I didn’t feel the need to get one.

Then, Steve Jobs pre-announced the iPhone. Like most technophiles, I swooned. Phone/iPod/camera/browser/PDA. Real internet access. The usability which I love Apple products for. And the prettiest device I had ever seen. So, I figured, I’d stick with my Sprint contract until the iPhone actually came out and then switch.

What intervened was that I started to make more phone calls for a few months, went over the 700 monthly minutes in my existing Sprint contract, and was charged the usurious rates they charge when you go above your limit. I called Sprint, told them I wanted to increase the calling time in my plan, but was told I could only do so by starting another two-year contract. Sorry, no.

By that time, the cool kids around the office were carrying the BlackBerry Pearl. It was small. It was available on AT&T, which I knew I was going to switch to, in order to get an iPhone. It was internet-enabled.

For me, the Pearl was the perfect email device. I didn’t use BlackBerry email, since I’m addicted to gmail’s threading, but the gmail mobile app is very well done. And the Pearl’s two-letters-per-key keyboard is very easy to type on — I can probably type on it at half the speed of a full-size desktop keyboard. Google Maps Mobile is similarly excellent. And, in addition, it could browse the web, but neither the built-in browser nor Opera were very good and, on the small screen, there was only so much of a browsing experience one could hope for.

Perhaps I’m too easily sold on a new device and too willing to compromise, but I really liked the Pearl. It was so much more functionality than I’d had before that I was totally hooked. I got used to reading things on it and wrote tens of email messages on it a day. It was good enough that, for the most part, I stopped carrying my laptop around the office. “Good enough” is an important criteria: anything that replaced it had to be better in enough dimensions to be worth the switch.

I was happy. Despite my original plan, I was going to stick with my BlackBerry, at least until there was a physical keyboard on the iPhone and, more important to me, a decent, native implementation of gmail.

On the other hand, Susan had gotten an iPhone last year and I’d become comfortable with it; ok, I was coveting it. On a vacation where we had poor GSM/Edge coverage but good WiFi, it worked very well (though modern BlackBerries do, too). I used the web interface to gmail on it and was more than pleasantly surprised. And I found that it was more important to me to have a well-rounded internet device than just a good email device. So I switched, even knowing that the device I was buying would be (hopefully) obsolete in a couple of months, due to the mythical 3G iPhone.

Now that I’ve switched, I can’t believe I held on to the BlackBerry as long as I did. What I’ve found is that I use the iPhone less for email than I used the BlackBerry, but much more in general. The phone experience on it is much more pleasant than I’d expected. The few native apps work nicely, but it really shines as an internet device. One shout-out: the new Google Reader beta for the iPhone is one of the most addictive apps I’ve ever used. And I’m very excited by the possibility of native apps, now that the SDK is out.

Of course, the iPhone still has its compromises. The lack of a keyboard does hurt, but I’m typing better than I had expected and wouldn’t want to give up any screen space or make the device larger. I’m hoping that with downloadable iPhone apps, we get an iPhone version of gmail mobile. (Despite working for Google, I have no idea if such a thing is in progress.) The Edge network is terrible once you’re used to anything faster, but the 3G rumors give my hope. And I still carry my iPod Nano with me, because the GSM interference (aka, BlackBerry buzz) is really awful when I use the iPhone hooked up to my car’s stereo.

So, is it the ultimate phone/mobile internet device? No, but it’s better than anything else I could actually buy today. And it’s a very satisfying piece of “realized science fiction” that I can carry around with me. It’s good enough for now.