After years of refusing to enable Blackberries to work in Japan, DoCoMo finally let the technology loose a couple of months ago. Although there is still only one model available, after reading Wasabi Green’s writeup on stippy.com I couldn’t resist but giving one a test-drive. So what is the verdict? Is it really worth lashing out a couple of men (万円の複数形, plural of “万”) to buy a blackberry? The short answer is “not yet”. Read on for Stippy.com’s field review of Japan’s blackberry friendliness.
For those of you who have lived in Japan so long that you haven’t seen a blackberry, let me take away some of the mystery. The blackberry, designed by a Canadian company called Research in Motion (RIM), enables you to access most of the mod cons of your office PC from your mobile. Not only can you check emails that arrive to your work address, you can also send emails using the same address. After a quick adjusting of the standard signature settings to delete the free ad for blackberry, no-one would even know that you weren’t in your office. You can also access your work calendar and address book, but better yet, any update you make to these is automatically saved on your work computer (including scheduling of events with other work colleagues).
Recently the blackberry has been equipped with a web browser (a few actually) which enables you to browse the web on your 3” LCD screen with relative ease. You can’t quite play final fantasy like you can on a DoCoMo handset, but there is a decent selection of games that you can download from the Blackberry website. My favorite so far is meteor crusher, but I’m quickly getting addicted to Ka-Blom! (Yes, I know, I’ve been in Japan too long). The great thing about the blackberry games is that you can send your high score into the blackberry database and see where you rank out of all of the global blackberry users who’ve played that game. I’m proud to say that I regularly rank in the top 10,000 or so. (#^o^#) More importantly, security is said to be extremely high quality at RIM and this is generally quoted as the reason that it has been so popular amongst US corporates (it seems that almost every senior manager in America uses one these days.)
Equipped with a full QWERTY keyboard, the 8707g (the only model available in Japan) is very user friendly for the average gaijin. The entire operating system is in English which means you don’t have to press the “6” key five times to type the word “no”. The flipside of this is its ability to handle Japanese. While you can read Japanese that is written in emails (if you install the Japanese language font), and on homepages (if you install the right Internet broswer – the preinstalled “BlackBerry Browser” and “WAP Browser” are useless), the blackberry does not offer any support for inputting Japanese at all. A service called Namimail is available from Namikiteru, a subsidiary of DoCoMo USA (for a fee!) which enables you to input Japanese characters in a new email, but despite being difficult to use, it doesn’t enable you to use Japanese when replying to or forwarding existing emails (let alone input on a webpage). Even when you are writing a new email, namimail takes over your address-book and makes searching for names near a very complicated process) I’ve been paying the monthly fee (US$35!!) for the last few months now but have used it about twice so am currently working out how to cancel my contract. I think DoCoMo made a mistake when they decided the name of this sub, I’m sure they meant to call it “Nameteru.”
More important than the user interface is mobile reception. Given that 3G has been in Japan for so long, I (and I think most other people) had assumed without a second thought that reception would be near perfect in central Tokyo – especially as my blackberry is set up to switch between the DoCoMo and Softbank networks as appropriate in order to guarantee the best possible reception. Amazingly, this turned out to be a huge leap of faith as quite often I struggled to get reception from either. Domestic FOMA users don’t notice as most phones these days are dual-chip (ie equipped with 2G and 3G chips) but the blackberry is only compatible with 3G in Japan so the naked truth hits home. Besides having trouble inside buildings, one of the most frustrating dead spaces was at Narita airport. While the concept of a blackberry is good, it doesn’t help much if you can’t call people! (This also makes it hard to download applications like games etc unless you stand still) For budding Yoso-guys out there out there, you’ll be pleased to hear that I was pleasantly surprised by the number of times that my little blackberry automatically switched over to the Softbank network for better reception.
Docomo Blackberry scanning the network:
Docomo Blackberry finds that Softbank has a better connection:
One final tip before I go. If you are keen enough to try a blackberry without perfect reception (or you want to keep a separate phone for voice use anyway) there are a bunch of great applications out there that you can down load. My favorite at the moment is Gmail. For the first few weeks I was accessing Gmail via the blackberry web browser until I noticed some small words down at the bottom of the screen inviting me to optimize Gmail to my blackberry. Low and behold, the Gmail website detects that you have a blackberry and allows you to download a plugin that makes emailing as easy as accessing your regular outlook account. (You can even review a handful of old emails without reception as it remembers your most recent inbox for you.) If anybody else knows any interesting applications out there then we’d love to hear about them.
Oh, and needless to say, you can view www.stippy.com without a problem on your blackberry. With thanks to our sleepless Webmaster, Stippy.com released its first mobile version last month. All you need to do is access the usual URL and it will recognize that you are accessing from a blackberry (or mobile phone, or any PDA for that matter!)
* Steve88, thanks for the comment on the Stippy Pols page. It was enough to motivate me to write this article.