“Just saying we’ve reinvented this company is not enough.”
That was the now-defunct Research in Motion’s Thorsten Heins today at the BlackBerry 10 event in New York City, where the company’s CEO attempted to put his money where his mouth is. Not only did Heins decide to rename the company BlackBerry–thus killing any and all RIM branding–but he introduced a pair of compelling smartphones that could give the struggling smartphone maker a fighting chance in the mobile market. BlackBerry’s two new flagship devices? The Z10, a sleek smartphone with a 4.2-inch display, and its less expensive cousin, the Q10, which retains a physical keyboard.
But the true star of the show was BB10, the company’s new operating system which will finally enable BlackBerry to compete against Android and Apple’s iOS software. While Heins and software portfolio head Vivek Bhardwaj showed off a slew of interesting new features today in New York–many of which had been unveiled or leaked beforehand–the overarching theme of the company’s digital direction (and differentiation from others) is getting away from, as Heins put it, “the in-and-out paradigm.”
If you’re an iPhone user, you inevitably have an idea of what Heins is talking about. The in-and-out paradigm encompasses a user experience where going to a new app or service is a matter of leaving a different one. BB10 has been designed around an integrated experience that encourages multitasking and content sharing while eschewing the idea of quitting, well, anything, Apple’s iPhone home button be damned.
A UNIFIED EXPERIENCE
BlackBerry introduced myriad features today that moves the experience away from the in-and-out paradigm. There’s BlackBerry Flow, which lets users seamlessly hop from one app to the next just by swiping. There’s BlackBerry Hub, which culls all your emails, social updates, and texts into one centralized area, so you don’t have to bounce between applications. There’s also BlackBerry Remember, a tool to let you flag an email, webpage, bookmark, or document, and keep track of these items as sort of a universal to-do list.
And then there’s Peek, a swiping gesture to give users access to a notifications window without having to leave an application. Yes, this notification gesture and access already exists on iOS and Android. But the idea here is to bring the experience of the notification pane to all applications and services, enabling easier and more seamless navigation. Summarizing the philosophy behind BB10, Bhardwaj said, “It’s about moving between applications, not about home buttons, opening and closing…This is real time true multitasking. In and out does not exist on BlackBerry 10.”
“We’re not moving in and out of applications,” Heins said.
COMBINE THE LAYERS
The easiest way to think about BB10 is to frame the operating system in terms of layers. Whereas most mobile operating systems are the equivalent of 8-bit side-scrolling video games–with users either jumping to the home screen or hopping from one program to the next on what’s basically an X-Y axis–BB10 is created around the idea that layers of applications should be running simultaneously. “All of my applications are running real-time,” Bhardwaj said, as he swipes to another program. “I’ve never left the experience–nothing is paused; nothing is compromised. It continues to operate, fast and fluid.”
That same layered experience can be seen in BlackBerry’s touch keyboard. On an iPhone, in order to type numbers, you have to switch from the lettered keyboard to a different set of keys. On BB10, a simple swipe-up gesture allows you to transition to typing numbers without the extra step of clicking a button.
The same can be said of BB10’s camera experience. Rather than having to hop from shooting a video to taking a picture, as you have to do on an iPhone, when shooting a video on BB10 users can simply tap the screen to snap a picture, mid-shot. No need to jump out of photography mode and into video mode–again, the experiences are combined, the layers of applications always running on top of each other.
BlackBerry’s smartest implementation of this philosophy is what the company calls BlackBerry Balance, which basically allows users to run two different environments on BlackBerry at once: one experience for personal, and one for productivity (i.e. a “Balance” of work and play). Rather than have to carry two devices, or mix your work and home experiences on your smartphone, Balance allows you to essentially carry two profiles on your device that are easy to switch between. With a simple gesture, users can slide between personal and productivity experiences, with everything from the wallpaper to the apps offered changing to fit your needs. “You’re not looking for a settings menu buried under certain controls–it’s very easy to just move between both of these spaces,” Bhardwaj said.
Heins called it a “blended” experience, where you don’t have to go “in and out of personal and work.” The two are easy to swipe between.
CAN IT WORK?
By most accounts, the hardware BlackBerry announced today is decent enough. And BB10 no doubt has many compelling features. But the company, which has seen its market share plummet in recent years, still has a long way to go before it can regain its once strong foot.
As Heins said, “Today, it isn’t just about unveiling another new platform or new product. It’s about changing a culture both within BlackBerry and around the world.”
One obvious downside of course is the lack of apps on BB10, which will boast 70,000 at launch, a fraction of those available on iOS and Android. (For example, Instagram will not be available on BB10 at launch, though don’t tell that to Alicia Keys, who Heins appointed today as BlackBerry’s new creative director. Her 1.6 million followers on Instagram won’t be seeing her photos coming from BB10 devices.)
But the larger problem for BlackBerry will be overcoming the perception of the company as being stagnant, both in terms of product and innovation. Too long has BlackBerry put out second-rate products into the market, running clunky second-rate software, on smartphones and tablets. BB10, as well as the Z10 and Q10 devices, represent a change in culture at the company. But it may be too little too late.