Here’s my tale of woe (and eventually my tips on how to avoid this unfortunate journey yourself): I requested a BlackBerry Tour to write a review of Bayalink Liberty, a hardware/software product that makes a stab at my vision of a smartphone-centric computer environment.
I kept it to review the BlackBerry development software then in beta test. After that, I kept it longer to build a list of good BlackBerry applications for techies like me, as well as another list of good BlackBerry applications for mobile professionals.
On the way to building these lists, I downloaded, installed, and tested a number of likely candidates. Fairly soon, I started finding that each application wanted to update itself over the air and reboot the BlackBerry — shades of Microsoft Windows in the bad old days of Windows 95!
Worse, the BlackBerry Tour reboot is roughly a 10-minute process. Ugh — shades of running Windows on a original IBM PC XT.
Meanwhile, Verizon pushed a BlackBerry OS update over the air. The update included a warning that it would take several hours — it did. I worried that the device’s battery might die in the middle of the update, so I kept it plugged into its charger for the duration.
After the OS update, I had to restore the application icons to my preferred arrangement, and I started having trouble with applications. I eventually figured out that the OS update had destroyed all their registration and preference settings.
Somewhere in there I tried to downgrade one application — it might have been BlackBerry Messenger — to see if that would fix the problem. There was no warning that doing this might be a bad idea; as a programmer, I try reverting recalcitrant software to a known good build as a standard practice.
After — and possibly because of — that, my BlackBerry started locking up and exhibiting other odd symptoms. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the reboot from a normal application update didn’t complete; instead I got a glowing white screen and the message “Reload Software 552.”
The power button was unresponsive. Removing the battery turned off the device, but reinserting the battery caused a five-minute boot process that once again ended with “Reload Software 552.” I started referring to this as the “White Screen of Death.”
It was Christmas Eve. Nobody was working at RIM or its PR firm. My local Verizon reseller was open; its BlackBerry “guru” took one look at the screen, said it need to be reflashed, and sent me to a Verizon-owned store half an hour away. In a mall. On Christmas Eve.
After I fought my way into the parking lot and found the store tucked away at the edge of the mall, I handed my BlackBerry to the first tech I found and asked if it could be fixed. “Let me take it in the back.”
Forty-five minutes later, he emerged, gave it to me with a relatively normal-looking screen, and said, “I hope you backed up your data to your desktop. I couldn’t get it out of the device.”
I hadn’t. I didn’t even know that the device came with a desktop app, because the CD wasn’t visible in the package of documentation I assumed was consumer pap that I didn’t need. OK, I didn’t even RTFM.
Fortunately, I had been syncing the device with my Gmail address book and calendar, so retrieving my data was trivial. But I had a bit of trouble restoring my email connections, and I was shy about installing applications until I had gotten some information about this problem from RIM.
After New Year’s, I started reloading the BlackBerry with applications. Over the holidays, I had gotten a chance to see what my two sons-in-law (the optometrist and the medical student) were running on their BlackBerrys, so I went a little far afield and downloaded Epocrates, a medical information application and database they both use heavily. This was on Jan. 15, a Friday night after work. I guess I was just asking for trouble.
Sure enough, the BlackBerry Tour spontaneously rebooted and went into the glowing-brick “Reload Software 552” state I encountered Christmas Eve. Again, I had a problem when nobody was around at RIM, so I went to a different Verizon Wireless store and asked if they could help me.
The techs at this store told me that they weren’t supposed to reflash BlackBerry devices; I was supposed to do that myself using my BlackBerry Desktop software. They admitted that Verizon Wireless’ policy is to replace a device that has exhibited the same problem twice, but they didn’t have this review unit in their system, so they couldn’t do the swap.
So I got to spend three hours of quality time with BlackBerry Desktop Manager on a Friday night. I got the Tour working again myself, but it took multiple tries. I finally had to downgrade the OS and remove most of the applications to get it to a bootable state. After that I was able to upgrade to the current OS and add applications from the BDM, as well as over the air. Google Sync then restored my contacts and calendar.
Later that week, RIM came back and suggested that I plug the device into my computer and go to blackberry.com/updates to make sure I was running the latest software. This turned out to be a nice little Web-based utility, but it only confirmed that I had finally done the upgrades correctly from the BlackBerry Desktop Manager.
Since then, I’ve come up with a few rules for keeping the BlackBerry going without another “White Screen of Death”:
- Connect your BlackBerry to your computer and run the BlackBerry Desktop Manager once a week. Apply any pending OS updates through the USB connector rather than over the air.
- Never downgrade a system application. In the latest BlackBerry OS, you’ll get a dire warning if you try this; I just wish there was such a warning when I was first having trouble with the device using an earlier version of the operating system.
- Back up your data and make sure your operating system is current before downloading or updating applications over the air.
- Never feed them after midnight. Oh, wait, that was “Gremlins.”
Enjoy your BlackBerry. It may not be the world’s coolest smartphone, but it really does messaging well.
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Martin Heller writes InfoWorld’s Strategic Developer blog — except when he’s having mobile adventures.