BlackBerry 6 OS Strong for Business but Not for New Business

BlackBerry 6 OS, first appearing on the BlackBerry Torch 9800, delivers a familiar and solid messaging experience along with the typically excellent administration feature set when activated to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server, that should continue to satisfy enterprise customers. But the new consumer-oriented features break no new ground and likely won't attract new business at the expense of the competition.

BlackBerry 6 OS does a good job preaching to the choir but probably won't attract many new converts. The new OS delivers a familiar and solid messaging experience that now extends to social networks, along with the typically excellent administration feature set when part of an end-to-end BlackBerry deployment. But the new consumer-oriented features break no new ground and don't stack up well with competing platforms.

With BlackBerry 6 OS, Research In Motion was squarely focused on delivering new features and services that would appeal to consumers and end users-much as Microsoft is trying to do with the soon-to-come Windows Phone 7. eWEEK Labs' tests found RIM did a good job not losing touch with its core audience while delivering these enhancements, as the company continues to deliver a similar experience to users and administrators for corporate messaging and enterprise manageability. Indeed, BlackBerry 6 OS remains a solid platform for enterprise business customers, particularly on the management side of things.

However, I see little inside the OS that would generate enthusiasm and attraction for a new audience. To be clear, the new features are nice to have and make for a more modern smartphone experience from the BlackBerry, but other competing devices and mobile platforms do a better job of it. While I suspect these improvements will help staunch RIM's customer bleed, mollifying many current customers, I doubt the platform will do much to drive new consumer activations.

When it comes to central administration, Blackberry 6 OS behaves much as prior BlackBerry versions have. As I noted in eWEEK's tests of the first Blackberry 6 OS device (the Torch 9800), the device slid seamlessly into our BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0.2 infrastructure. I found my standard, default device policies worked without a hitch. Password lock and complexity settings, device feature lockouts (for Bluetooth or camera settings, for example), WiFi configurations and wirelessly pushed application sets all deployed successfully, with no modifications required.

I also noted that remote access to protected file shares-a feature introduced in BB 5 OS-worked equally well in version 6.

While my BES infrastructure is fully up-to-date, RIM representatives make clear that BB 6 OS devices should work equally well with previous versions of BES 4.x and 5.x. However, 5.0.2 does offer some policy controls not available in previous versions-such as controls for the new BlackBerry Podcasts application. Also, 5.0.2 will be the first BES edition that adds corporate support for personal BlackBerry devices (a feature that should be supported on the client side of things by the end of the year).

On the device side of things, BB 6 OS introduces a number of enhancements to help bring users closer to their data-whether that information is on a device or on the Web.

Like BB OS versions, the BB 6 OS highlights incoming messages (e-mails, texts, Facebook messages and call log events) in a Notification bar along the top of the screen. With version 6, users can click on the notification bar to access an overlay screen showcasing the most recent messages of each type to get a better at-a-glance perspective on what's new. I liked how easy it was to toggle between the home screen and the overlay without needing to change the overlay or requiring a customized theme. However, I was disappointed that I could not access the overlay while using an app, as I first needed to navigate back to the home screen.

In a nod toward the rise of social networking, the new Social Feeds application aggregates content from the user's Facebook, Twitter and configured instant messaging accounts and alerts to the Notification bar of incoming items. While I found Social Feeds provided a nice overview stream from all my various communities, the app also proved redundant and extraneous. Clicking on an item in the stream within Social Feeds takes the user back to the BlackBerry-native application for the post (like the updated, but still comparatively terrible BlackBerry Facebook app). And most of the underlying applications also alert independently to the Notification bar, as well, making things quite cluttered.

The home screen is now broken into five distinct screens accessible by side scrolling. While the All screen is most analogous to older BlackBerry OS versions--on the Torch, a jumble of 38 applications and settings organized as if by tornado-there are now four other screens for simplified navigation. The Frequent screen dynamically organizes icons, migrating the most commonly used applications to the top. Favorites, meanwhile, allows the user to define their own set of common applications. Additional screens for media and downloads round out the set.

As before, users can modify the All screen with the familiar process of using the BlackBerry key and on-screen menus to create folders and move things around. Even though the touch controls in BB 6 OS were much better on the Torch than for previous models such as the Storm, the touch feature could not be used to edit screen layout, which I thought was a significant letdown.

Without a doubt the most welcome improvement in BlackBerry 6 OS is the new Webkit-based Web browser. Although it breaks little new ground when it comes to mobile Web browsing, at least BlackBerry finally has an intuitive, well-organized, built-in browser. I hope never to see another "Request Entity Too Large" error from a BlackBerry again.

Search is vastly improved, taking a hint from webOS and allowing users to search on the device or on the Web simply by starting to type on the home screen. Built-in intelligence figures out by the keys pressed that the user is not trying to dial the phone, and the OS pops up application icons possibly relevant for the search. By pressing on one of these icons, the user can filter the search by application-filtering down to just e-mail, calendar, YouTube or Google Web search, for instance.

Several terrible user experiences from previous BB OS iterations remain, unfortunately. The Exchange mail experience is still woefully incomplete if the device is not connected to a BES, still lacking calendar, contact and task synchronization.

I was also puzzled why RIM would change certain hotkey functionality in the e-mail, which could serve to confuse longtime BlackBerry users moving to the new OS. I expect that RIM will continue to offer models running BB 6 OS that don't have a touch screen, so hotkeys will continue to be necessary for fast access around the device, but in version 6, RIM made some small but annoying changes. For instance, I found that RIM reversed the functionality of the "P" and "N" hotkeys in the mail application, so now pressing "P" moves up the list, whereas the same key would move down the list in version 5.

I was also extremely disappointed to see that BB 6 OS still requires an operating system reboot when upgrading or removing third-party applications-a major detractor given how long BlackBerrys typically take to fully reboot.