On Wednesday, Research In Motion changed its name to BlackBerry and finally unveiled its much-anticipated and completely re-worked BlackBerry 10 operating system and two new BlackBerry 10 devices. These unveilings are extremely important to the future of BlackBerry, which has lost a significant amount of value and market share to the iPhone and Android-powered devices in recent years. While BlackBerry smartphones continue to sell well abroad, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of BlackBerry as a company likely rests on the success of BlackBerry 10 and devices that run BlackBerry 10.
Here are some of the highlights of BlackBerry 10, as seen on the BlackBerry Z10 touchscreen smartphone:
Gesture-based navigation: Unlike the competition, BlackBerry 10 is completely gesture-based. This means there are no physical navigation buttons on the bottom of the screen. There are two main gestures to navigate around the display: a swipe up takes you to the home screen, and a swipe up and then swipe to the right (in one motion) brings you to the BlackBerry Hub. Reviews indicate that there is a learning curve to using BlackBerry 10′s gestures but that after some use they are intuitive. I like gesture-based navigation and the Nova Launcher I use on my Galaxy Nexus has some of that (a swipe up brings up my recent apps, for example) and I find it useful. However, one big selling point of eliminating navigation buttons on a phone is that it frees up more space on the front of the device to be able to either fit more display or make the device smaller, and from the photos I’ve seen of the BlackBerry Z10, it appears that there is about an inch of unused space between the bottom of the display and the bottom of the device. The gesture-based navigation is still convenient, but an edge-to-edge display that takes advantage of the space saved by not having navigation buttons would have been much more impressive to me. Maybe future devices will have that.
BlackBerry Hub: BlackBerry Hub is a unified inbox that displays messages from various services, including email, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, text messages, and BlackBerry Messenger. The user can customize which services are displayed and can also look at the messages one service at a time. BlackBerry advertises that this gives the user the ability to view and reply to messages without leaving the app they’re in by being able to swipe the BlackBerry Hub over whatever they’re doing, replying to a message, and then swiping the BlackBerry Hub away to return to the app they were in.
BlackBerry Flow and BlackBerry Peek: BlackBerry Flow and Peak are both features aimed at making multitasking easier and more effective. BlackBerry Flow allows a user can move easily from app to app using gestures without any of the apps closing, and BlackBerry Peek allows a user to move the current app over and “peak” at what’s beneath it. The example given by BlackBerry is moving a YouTube video over to see an email.
Active Frames homescreen: The homescreen on the BlackBerry Z10 is an always-changing arrangement of thumbnails of up to eight recent apps. The thumbnails appear as either minimized views of the app content or, depending on developer support, dynamic, widget-like information. For example, a weather app could be designed to appear in the Active Frames view as the current temperature with high/low and sun graphic. The order and selection of the Active Frames cannot be modified by the user. There is also an app drawer with apps and folders.
BlackBerry keyboard: The touchscreen keyboard uses Swiftkey technology to learn from a user’s typing to make more accurate predictions. A cool thing about the keyboard is that predictions hover above possible next letters. Using the example on the BlackBerry website, if you type “su” the word “sure” will appear over the “R,” “support” over the “P,” “suggestions” over the “G,” and so on. If “sure” is the word you’re looking for, you press your finger on “R” and swipe up. This is different than the stock Android keyboard found on Android 4.0+ because in Android the suggestions appear at the top of the keyboard, and therefore require more movement to access, whereas in BlackBerry, you’re already moving your finger towards that next letter and the word is right above it.
BlackBerry Messenger: BlackBerry Messenger has lost some importance with iMessage, WhatsApp, Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, and similar services, but it is still a pretty big draw and was something that many people I have spoken to over the years expressed as a big BlackBerry selling point. With BlackBerry 10, BlackBerry added support for video-calling and screen-sharing over BBM.
NFC: The BlackBerry Z10 uses NFC technology – branded “BlackBerry Tag” – to share media, contact information, add BBM contacts, and other uses.
Time Shift Camera: BlackBerry 10 implements pretty awesome camera functionality that takes multiple pictures in a very short amount of time before and after a user taps the “shutter button” (which in the BlackBerry Z10 is done by tapping the screen) and then allows elements from each picture to be combined. So if you are taking a picture of three friends, it will actually take many pictures and allow you to select the best facial expression on each friend’s face for the final picture. This is great for people who can’t keep their eyes open in a picture. The picture quality of the BlackBerry Z10 camera has not been getting rave reviews independent of this feature.
BlackBerry Balance and Documents To Go: BlackBerry began as a device used for business and while BlackBerry 10/Z10 is designed to appeal to businesspeople and regular consumers alike, BlackBerry is clearly still interested in being the go-to device in the corporate world. BlackBerry Balance gives the device separate encrypted “Work” and “Personal” modes. This means that when an employer hooks the device up to its enterprise servers, the employer has an extra layer of security around confidential business information and the employee has peace of mind that his or her employer will not have access to personal content on the phone. The hope, I would think, is that employers will require BlackBerrys and employees will not feel the need to get a second device for personal use. Another feature aimed at business use is Documents To Go, which allows editing of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. Android and iOS does not feature native support for this, but each have apps available that provide this functionality.
Improved BlackBerry World with more apps and media availability.
QNX-based kernel: BlackBerry 10 is BlackBerry’s first smartphone operating system that implements the QNX microkernel, which BlackBerry acquired when it purchased the company QNX. The QNX microkernel uses a hub-and-spoke architecture to distribute system resources (picture the kernel in the center of a wheel and different system resources at the end of spokes), and this results in each component (input driver, graphics driver, network, etc.) running in a self-contained operating environment that allows other components to continue to run even when one component crashes or stops working properly. This is a contrast to current kernels where a problem with one component can affect the entire system, and the QNX microkernel is supposed to be much more stable and smooth.
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In addition to the BlackBerry 10 OS, BlackBerry also unveiled the BlackBerry Z10 and the BlackBerry Q10. To me, BlackBerry 10 OS is what really stole the show, but the devices are worth mentioning because an OS is useless without a device on which to run.
BlackBerry Z10: Specs include a 4.2” LCD touchscreen display with a 1280 x 768 resolution (356 ppi), 9 mm thick, 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, 2 GB RAM, 16 GB on-board memory, support for up to 64 GB micro SD memory card, 8 MP rear camera with 1080p video recording capabilities, 2 MP front camera with 720p video recording, 1800 mAh battery. The device has 4G LTE capabilities and will be available on all major carriers in the US. Initial reviews indicate that the Z10 is well-built and that BlackBerry 10 is surprisingly good, but also has some flaws, like poor app selection and some frustrating design elements. The general consensus seems to be that the Z10 is nice but presents no real compelling reason to switch from Android or iPhone.
BlackBerry Q10: Although tech reporters were given BlackBerry Z10 units to use, their time with the Q10 was limited to a “controlled demo” of the device at the press event, and as a result there are fewer reviews of the Q10. The Q10 is not listed on BlackBerrys website yet and specifics on the device are pretty limited. What we know is that is has a 720 x 720 square display and a physical keyboard that is very similar to that on the BlackBerry Bold. I like that BlackBerry gives customers the option of a physical keyboard, but nowadays the vast majority of consumers seem to want touchscreen, so I hope BlackBerry doesn’t focus too much effort on devices with physical keyboards at the expense of touchscreen devices.
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The big question: Will BlackBerry 10 and BlackBerry Z10 turn things around for BlackBerry?
I’m gonna take the easy way out and say I don’t know so as not to hurt my credibility if this entry is re-read in a few years. Seriously, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The problem facing BlackBerry is that the smartphone market is so advanced and so competitive right now, and the Z10 does looks nice, but at the end of the day the average consumer will ask “Why should I get this phone and not an Android phone or an iPhone” and there really isn’t a great answer to that questions for BlackBerry. A year or two ago things may have been different, but at this stage in the game I’m not sure if it is too little too late for BlackBerry.
There are definitely some good things about BlackBerry 10/Z10, like its corporate offerings, BlackBerry Hub, fresh, gesture-based user interface, Time Shift camera, and a consistent product resulting from BlackBerry designing the hardware and software (as a contrast from Android and Windows Phone). But there are also some real disadvantages, like poor app selection and multimedia offerings, poor maps service, and limited integration with an existing ecosystem besides social media and email (Apple, Android, and Windows Phone 8 all integrate with a variety of devices and services). When weighing the advantages and disadvantages, there is really no strong reason or must-have feature that would lure people away from iPhone and Android except for brand loyalty or corporate requirements. The wildcards to me are the demand for BlackBerry in the corporate world and the number of people who begrudgingly gave up their BlackBerrys the past few years when BlackBerry started to fall far behind and who now miss their BlackBerrys. Without any surprises, though, I don’t think BlackBerry will become a dominant force in the smartphone world the way it once was.
I hope BlackBerry does succeed, as they were the company that introduced me to smartphones and were really innovative in the smartphone world. But the lesson to learn from this is that a successful company must continue to innovate and adapt or else a competitor will.
Also, here’s a good video walkthrough of BlackBerry 10 by Kevin at CrackBerry.com: