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Ihnatko: BlackBerry unveils BB10, and I like what I see so far

BlackBerry's employees prepare launch event for company's new smartphones LondWednesday Jan. 30 2013. The first new generatilong-awaited BlackBerrys will go

BlackBerry's employees prepare the launch event for the company's new smartphones in London, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013. The first in a new generation of long-awaited BlackBerrys will go on sale in the next week in Canada and the United Kingdom, but won't be released in the U.S. until March.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Updated: March 2, 2013 11:35AM



Research In Motion was saddled with two monumental problems. First, the name of the company was practically meaningless. It could have been an engineering firm that designs playground equipment or a consumer marketing company that sends canvassers out in vans or something.

But the big problem was their product: a phone OS that was still associated with old-fashioned 2005-era push-button devices that people only used because their corporate employers forced them to.

Today, in a worldwide launch event, the company addressed both issues. “Research In Motion” is now “BlackBerry.” And a brand new OS and a new pair of phones marks as enormous and dramatic a departure from BlackBerry’s past as when the Saturn V rocket dropped its spent stages into the ocean and the Apollo spacecraft continued towards to the moon.

(Aside: yes, fine. Only the Saturn V’s lower stages were ditched into the Atlantic; the translunar injection burn was done from earth orbit. You and I both know that the Saturn IVB stage crashed into the moon’s surface after jettison. But it’s a good analogy, and I decided to stick with it.)

I first saw BlackBerry 10 closeup a month or two ago. The bad news: I wasn’t allowed to even hold the production sample of what I now recognize as the BlackBerry Z10. The good: it was a one-on-one with Vivek Bhardwaj, BlackBerry’s Head of Software Portfolio, who answered all questions as I tried to grasp what the company was trying to accomplish.

When I get my first look at a new idea, what I really hope to see is that the makers have latched on to some strong basic concepts. In general, the 1.0 of anything will have limitations. But that’s usually OK; the next version can always add a better camera or a faster whatsit. If the device isn’t based on good philosophies and priorities, and if it doesn’t present a point of view that isn’t already being well-addressed by an existing product, the thing is hopeless.

I like what I see in BB10 so far. Here are the basic themes:

1) BB10 is “The Mullet Phone.” Yes, obviously that’s my description, not Blackberry’s. But BB10 is designed clearly with “all business up front, party in the back” in mind. BB10 is aware that the phone in your pocket is both a piece of corporate equipment (usually managed by a remote IT department) as well as a personal device. At a fundamental, OS level, BB10 allows your company’s priorities and yours to coexist under the same screen. There’s a firewall between those kinds of data and encryption prevents your IT department from seeing your personal photos, or wiping your high scores while updating your device.

2) BB10, and the new phones, are aggressively designed to be “one handers.” BlackBerry Flow is a simple set of thumb-gestures that allow you to control the majority of the experience, without necessarily needing to tap, tap, tap and drill, drill, drill through an interface. A revamped BlackBerry hub also puts a large swatch of information and communication features inside one experience, instead of spreading contacts, scheduling, and social media across multiple apps.

Suffice to say that there’s a case to be made that BlackBerry 10 is expressly made for a user who’s pulling a rollerbag through an airport.

The design of these two new phones underscore this idea of BlackBerry as a one-handed phone: the Z10 and Q10 buck the bigscreen trend. It’s a clear “all in” gesture from the designers and flies in the face of phones like the 4.8” Samsung Galaxy S III.

3) Keyboards are important. Witness the Q10, whose throwback mechanical keyboard will surely attract some giggling. But many users really, really like mechanical keyboards — on the BlackBerry, it’s even a storied tradition — and offering users a simple choice is never a terrible idea.

More than that, BB10 features a predictive typing feature that encourages you to never type out a complete word unless it’s absolutely necessary. The iPhone offers the user a single suggested word completion. Android offers multiple predictions in a little deck above the active keyboard. BB10 puts each of its guesses right where your thumb would be going if you intended to type that word anyway anyway. It’s more useful than the iPhone’s answer and it doesn’t force you to keep your eyes off the keyboard, like Android does.

Nice. And a shrewd move for BlackBerry. If you rely on your phone to spackle in those gaps between Desktop Time and Notebook Time, you come to value a great phone keyboard more and more. As with the iPhone 5’s incredible camera, a superior keyboard is an immediately-visible advantage to a shopper.

4) BlackBerry Remember. Another smart idea: the user can keep all of the content related to a project or a task in a separate folder. It’s surprising to suddenly realize how difficult this sort of project organization is on other phones. Content is locked to apps, and if you’re trying to renovate a restaurant and you want to keep these contacts and these work files with these maps and these URLs together, an iPhone and even an Android device forces you to keep dipping in and out of the data stores of multiple apps.

The overall message that BlackBerry aimed to deliver during the BlackBerry 10 launch event? That BB10 is emphatically an OS for Getting. Things. Done.

Their second message, delivered only with slightly lower emphasis: they’ve got developers on board with BlackBerry 10. 7,000 apps in the BlackBerry Zone, which is BB’s version of the iTunes Store. These days, it’s fairly easy to open a new content store with a wide collection of music, movies, and TV shows (and the Zone has all of these). But a platform is dead without developers. Which is why a dizzying whip-round of apps and icons filled the screen during this section of the event.

Are apps really that important? Yeah: nobody wants to climb on top of a horse that’s instinctively loping towards the dog food plant. But it isn’t as though BlackBerry needs to build as big an app library as iOS or Android, either. So long as they can win the hearts and minds of the developers of the hundred or so apps that everybody needs, and perhaps the thousand or so that most people ever want, consumers can be swayed by other considerations (see: “getting things done”).

BlackBerry 10 has Skype and Kindle. Good. I didn’t see Netflix. Uh-oh. Plenty of games from Disney, EA, and Gameloft. Good. Angry Birds - hell, I could build an Arduino-based LED game and they’d port Angry Birds to it three days after I Tweeted a photo of it. Rdio, good. Didn’t see Spotify...not so good. Box.net, no Dropbox yet.

Well, if an app isn’t available at launch, it’s not necessarily a bad sign. But the clock’s definitely running and people will definitely be tracking the velocity of the BlackBerry 10 app store over the coming year quite cautiously.

Take all of that as the opinion of someone who’s seen a keynote presentation and spent an hour having BB10 explained to me by a BlackBerry executive. I’ve yet to so much as break the air/skin barrier on a BlackBerry 10 device yet. A full review and meaningful conclusions will (as always) have to wait until I’ve had a Z10 to test for a little while. The new BlackBerry phones will start shipping in the UK tomorrow, with worldwide shipping starting next week. They’ll land in the USA in March. All major US carriers are already on board; Verizon has already announced a $199 on-contract price for the Z10, but no ship date.

Whether or not BlackBerry 10 becomes a major hit and reinvigorates the fortunes of the company remains to be seen. It’s already accomplished something, though: in demo form at least, it’s made Android look clunky (all right: clunkier)...and it’s made iOS look like something out of 2008.

iOS has remained sadly static, even in the face of innovations on other platforms that many people like and want. I’ll even go so far as to say that the iPhone’s George W. Bush-era keyboard kind of blows, compared to Android’s.

Why is this so? Is Apple serenely confident that they got it exactly right in 2007? Or, have they reached the reasonable conclusion that there’s no need to radically change a product that tens of millions of people already love, particularly when each new iPhone continues to post eye-watering sales numbers worldwide?

Or: Someday soon, is Apple going to reach into the hat and pull out the god-damnedest rabbit anybody ever saw?

I’m hoping it’s the last thing. I’ve been an Apple fan since my grade school days and an iPhone user since day one. I’m getting weary of seeing demos of things like BlackBerry 10 and thinking “Gee, I wish my iPhone had that feature.”



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