BlackBerry 10 Preview – A Fresh Start For Research In Motion
This week I was given a chance to try out Research In Motion’s new operating system. BlackBerry 10 is completely new software that represents a break from the old BlackBlerry that many have lost faith in and a fresh start in an opening bid to have consumers, app developers, and the mobile industry take RIM seriously once again. It will be officially unveiled at the end of January alongside the first of two new BlackBerry smartphones and if all goes well the company hopes to use it to power new tablets, car dashboard systems, and other devices that occupy our lives. If all goes well.
Like the first moves on a chess board, BlackBerry 10 and the changes it offers is the company’s opening strategy. All of the features we’re familiar with have been given a new organization and a new presentation to make them fresh. RIM has invented new ways to multitask apps, to gather messages from multiple sources, and to help manage your personal life from your work life.
These are sound changes, but they echo those made by other companies in the past who have tried to reinvent themselves and failed. When Palm launched the Pre in 2009 it too offered completely new software with new ideas on multitasking apps, gathering messages from multiple sources, and syncing with computer stations to balance personal and work life. These were well-received innovations at the time and yet success eluded Palm who is no longer with us.
I think the redesigned touch keyboard will be the most successful new feature. It’s a replica of the BlackBerry keyboard many love and in use is identical in both look and feel, right down to arranging the keys in three rows and the frets in between. The touch controls are very accurate and it will surely surprise many just how much it feels like you’re typing on physical keys.
If you’re sloppy with touch controls, if you have a bad habit of hitting J when you’re aiming for K, the keyboard will detect the pattern and adjust to match. For you, the edge of J will now mean K. When autosuggest kicks in, the suggested words will appear on the frets and should you routinely switch between languages, say between English and French, the autosuggest will switch languages to match.
Hub, Peeking, Flow
On most phones a swipe from the main screen will pull up handy information, such as notifications or media playback controls. In BlackBerry 10 a swipe to screen left brings out a “hub” pane with all your incoming messages displayed. If a message comes in with details for a meeting, you can follow up with a swipe from the top of the screen for a quick calendar summary to see if you’re free. This is useful, but it will also take time to feel natural.
If you swipe from the bottom of the main screen and hold it, the screen shrinks to reveal a desktop peeking out from underneath where notification icons display the status of your main services (similar to Apple’s Mission Control). Let go and the desktop displays all of your open applications as real-time “flow” windows (similar to the live tiles in Windows Phones). I found this an awkward arrangement.
Many corporations have adopted policies that allow employees to choose the phone they wish to use for work. With BlackBerry 10 you can set up two separate profiles, each with its own apps, accounts, and settings. A swipe from the top of the screen reveals the Balance controls to switch between the two.
Your work profile will grant your employer all the control they usually ask for. Your company’s IT department can introduce restrictions to that profile (like denying copy & paste of information to Facebook accounts) and should you leave the company, to remote wipe the work side of your phone without touching your personal information. On the flipside, RIM suggests that parents might use this feature to restrict their kids to playing with just personal apps while leaving work information out of reach.
Reader and Time Shift
Here we have two tricks that I’ve seen before as apps. The new browser includes a Reader Mode that will reformat website articles to remove distracting content (like the Readability app) while the camera includes a Time Shift mode that records a few seconds of video before and after you take a photo so you have a range of shots to choose from (similar to the StillShot app). With Face Detection, it can do this for just the faces in the photo, adjusting two faces at a time. It’s an impressive trick, not one I’m sure will get a lot of use, but every new operating system needs a bit of wow factor.
Miles To Go Before RIM Sleeps
Although there are few ideas here that I haven’t seen before, BlackBerry 10 does offer a fresh approach to them and is well-organized enough to make it clear that Research In Motion has its act together and is ready to put their troubles behind them. A new operating system and some phones is a start, but in the highly competitive mobile market RIM will have to build on it with genuinely new ideas and prove they can become a hit factory for innovation in order to come back from the that desolate brink of irrelevance that Palm, Motorola, and other “relaunched” companies have fallen over.