As Google and Apple fight to be king of mobile OS mountain, there have been many companies moving to claim third place. RIM may be late to the next generation of smartphones, but today they took to the stage to announce BlackBerry 10 running on the new Z10 smartphone.
When you think of a BlackBerry, the image that comes to mind is the plastic slab with a keyboard. It’s been a few years since that design was the most common, but there are still plenty of users out there who prefer a physical keyboard. In most cases, the only reason these users moved away from RIM in the first place is for the superior browsing experience and the availability of lifestyle apps. Smartphones have grown to be more that just business-oriented devices, and RIM failed to offer those features in order to remain relevant. The BlackBerry Z10 does away with the image that we most associate with the BlackBerry brand, focusing instead on looking like a black or white slab with a 4.2-inch touch screen.
The Z10 is a 9mm thick flat smartphone with a 1280×768 display at 356PPI. The dual-core 1.5Ghz processor powering the Z10 is accompanied by 2GB of RAM with all the trimmings. Inside you’ll find NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, MicroHDMI, and a dual-band N WiFi radio that also supports mobile hotspot. The 135.4 gram smartphone has a 2MP camera in the front and an 8MP camera in the back with an LED flash. The back casing is removable, revealing a battery that RIM claims will get up to 11 hours of video playback. The Z10 is a global smartphone, supporting LTE as well as HSPA+ networks. Compared to any current generation phone save for the recent 5-inch Android based monster phones, the Z10 can easily hold its own on paper.
As we’ve seen time and time again, hardware isn’t quite as important today as it was in the past. BlackBerry 10 has been in development for some time now, and its reveal today shows a well thought out user experience that makes good use of the all touch environment. In fact, the OS seem to pull the best from iOS, Android, and WebOS in order to create a unique yet familiar experience.
As the only buttons on the Z10 are the power, volume, and voice command buttons, the OS focuses on an entirely gesture driven experience. The home screen for BB10 offers a phone, search, and camera button at the bottom of the screen, with your installed apps sitting in a grid above. UnlikeAndroid, these buttons go away when you are in an app, but they always return when you are on the homescreen. You pull down from the top to access setting, similar to how Android operates today. Apps can be placed in folders on the home screen, and you move and remove apps on the home screen is very much the same way you would on iOS.
Continuing to build on the personal experience was built up by this release, BB10 features a powerful camera app. Considering what a significant part of the smartphone experience the camera has become, this isn’t a surprise. Outside of the expected burst shot, image stabilization, and light condition settings, RIM has included a feature they call Time Shift to capture group images. Time Shift takes multiple images over a few seconds, and allows you to edit separate parts of the image by splicing in parts from one of the other images taken in the group. If you’re taking photos of a group, the idea is that you’d be able to edit the photo until you have a shot where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling.
Outside of the camera app itself, the Pictures app allows you to edit the photo with a series of preset filters and image manipulation options. It’s a big step forward for RIM, and puts the photo experience on par with Android and iOS out of the box.
Multitasking on BB10 is a fairly unique experience. When you need to move away from an app, but you’d like to keep it around, you swipe up from the bottom bezel and minimize it into what RIM is calling an Active Frame. This app is still functional, but shrunk down to a quarter of its size visually and stored in its own area on the home screen. When displaying an information in Active Frame mode, these apps function in a way that is similar to widgets in Android, though each Active frame takes up the same amount of space and Widgets can be placed anywhere on the desktop. You can have up to 8 Active Frames running on your desktop at any given time, and stacks of Active Frames create a different page icon on the homescreen to make it easier to navigate to them.
Another key feature in BB10, one that has been unsuccessfully replicated elsewhere, is BlackBerry Balance. For those of us who do still use our phones for work as well as play, it can occasionally be problematic to have a single device that combines the two. Balance allows Enterprise Service 10 users to separate their work apps and data from everything else, offering features that lock access to the work apps and securing the data behind a 256-bit AES encryption. Switching between work and personal setting is very simple, and does very little to interrupt the overall experience.
The big question that is bound to come from anyone right about now is apps. If BB10 doesn’t have the apps that users want, it’s not going to matter how great the Z10 is. RIM has been working hard for the last year to help developers prepare apps for this release, offering free hardware and contests to encourage users to put their best foot forward. With over 70,000 apps in their store, they have a good starting point. There have even been efforts to help developers port Android apps to the new BlackBerry World so the BB10 shelves will not be bare. BlackBerry World may not be ready to compete with the millions of apps that Android and iOS have, but the storefront is far from empty. There’s plenty of great apps that are still not available on Windows Phone 8, and the new store is designed to make it easy for users to find the apps they are looking for.
In the battle for third place in the smartphone world, RIM has made a compelling case for itself. This hardware may not be the image that most people have in mind when they think about BlackBerry, but it is already an impressive step above Windows Phone, FirefoxOS, and Ubuntu for smartphones. Despite the last few years of wandering around in the dark, RIM seems to have a good handle on what users expect out of a smartphone experience today.