When you see BlackBerry 10 being demonstrated, it doesn’t look all that revolutionary, at least until you look a little closer. Then you realize that you’re able to do things on this new touch-screen device you can’t do with other smartphones.
You have an always-available unified messaging app that’s user-configurable. There’s a new on-screen keyboard that looks easier to use than what you find on other phones. The device is fully capable of multitasking.
Perhaps the most important and most overlooked feature will be the ability to do most things with one finger. What RIM has done with their new QNX user interface is really implement effective one-finger gestures. The idea is that you’ll be able to use the phone and operate it with your thumb while you do something else, like walk through an airport.
These are among the details that RIM CEO Thorsten Heins revealed about BlackBerry 10 at the BlackBerry Jam developers conference in San Jose, Calif., that began on Sept. 25. During his presentation, Heins gave a series of intriguing looks into how the new OS will work. In his presentation, Heins explained that the new OS uses what the company calls “Flows,” which are those one-fingered gestures. Meanwhile, always in the background is something called the BlackBerry Hub.
The BlackBerry Hub is something like features on other smartphones, including the current generation of BlackBerry devices that feature a unified inbox that keeps email, text messages, twitter notifications and the like in a single folder. But on the current BlackBerry OS 7.1, these duties are split between a folder and a pull-down list, both of which list some of the same things. However, the pull down list, which you get to by touching your finger to a narrow bar at the top of the screen, will now remain open in the background, and you’ll be able to decide what goes there.
When you’re doing something like browsing the Web or reading email, you use a gesture to slide open one side of the screen to reveal the BlackBerry Hub. There you can see relevant emails, meetings, social network messages or whatever you’re looking for. Apparently this can all be organized so that all of the information for an event appears in one spot, eliminating the opening of various apps that you’d normally have to do.
There’s also a similar “Peek” function that will let you look at another screen while you’re doing something else. For example, you can look at a Web page while typing an email. According to Heins, this activity is enhanced by a new browser which RIM is claiming is the fastest in the industry.
The new BlackBerry 10 user interface looks a little more like the Windows Phone tiles than like Apple’s or Android’s icons. On the BlackBerry they’re called frames and it doesn’t appear that you can resize them as you can with Windows Phone. However, the frames do contain active content similar to the Microsoft active tiles. You can move the frames around with those single-finger gestures.
Whether the BlackBerry 10’s user interface is easier or more intuitive than what you’ll find on the iPhone or the Windows Phone remains to be seen since RIM isn’t handing out models to the press. However, I did notice during the demo that it sometimes took a couple of tries to get the screen to respond to gestures, but it’s important to remember that this is alpha hardware. The finished version will surely operate more smoothly.
Heins did note a couple of critical facts about BlackBerry and its development world. First, the company is offering a $10,000 bonus to any app developer who gets their BlackBerry 10 app into BlackBerry App World by mid-January and manages to sell just $1,000 worth of apps by the end of the year. Obviously the idea is to get as many apps available as possible by the time BlackBerry 10 launches, with the idea that selling enough to qualify for the bonus will help keep quality up.
The fact that both the BlackBerry 10 device and the BlackBerry PlayBook both run QNX should help encourage developers. But perhaps what’s more important about RIM’s new focus on apps is the understanding of the ecosystem that this demonstrates. A shortage of useful apps kept the PlayBook tablet from being a huge hit, and it has hurt earlier models of BlackBerry devices as well. If RIM can launch the BlackBerry 10 device with hundreds of thousands of apps already available, it’ll do a lot to convince existing customers not to stray to Apple’s iPhone.
Of course, Heins did point out one other benefit that BlackBerry devices bring to the table that Apple does not. The new, thinner, lighter BlackBerry devices will still use the same USB power connectors and the same micro-SIM cards currently in use in most other smartphones. Users won’t have to pay thirty bucks just to buy an adapter to make their accessories work.