In June 2011, I spent some time with an early version of BlackBerry 10 and commented that things “can only get better.” I said that because. at the time, things weren’t good. At all. BlackBerry 10 was a mess and the developer unit I tried it on was so glitchy I felt guilty writing a hands-on piece at all. Yesterday, off-site at CES, I got a full run down of a near-final version of BlackBerry 10 by the folks at Research in Motion. I can’t believe the difference six months can make. BlackBerry 10 is not only fully functional now, but it’s exciting.
RIM’s been talking about things like “flow” and universal inboxes for months, and now that I’ve seen all of BB 10′s parts working together, I have to believe that RIM has a fighting chance. I wouldn’t have said it until today, but BlackBerry 10 could bring the comeback RIM so desperately needs.
It’s all about flow
Talking about a user interface having “flow” and being easy to use is, well … easy. Anyone can run their mouth and every single phone manufacturer does. Usually it’s a spiel filled with silly words like “friendliness” and “human emotion.” But RIM has done something close to that. BlackBerry 10 is simple to use and has a smoothness to it that puts it right up there with Google’s newest Nexus devices and iOS.
Like the competition, BB 10 has a lock screen, notifications, a list of installed apps, and all the crap you expect in a post-iPhone operating system, but RIM has perfected some new ideas. Instead of a blank homescreen like you get on Android or an apps list, like you get when you turn on an iPhone, BlackBerry 10 sends you straight into your recently used apps. BB 10 can manage up to nine active applications simultaneously and freeze others in the background, and lays them out in a 4×4 grid of tiles that scrolls downward. You enter an app by tapping on it, or simply hit the X in its lower right corner to shut it down. It’s not the most gorgeous homescreen, but managing active apps is something no one is getting right in mobile, which gives BB 10 an advantage out of the gate.
After looking at your active apps, a swipe from the right will take you to your apps list, which will go on and on, depending on how many apps you have installed, just like an iPhone. You can re-order your installed app icons, make folders, etc.
Swipe back to the active apps page and then to the left once more and you come to the BlackBerry Hub, a complete universal inbox that organizes all of your emails, messages, notifications, social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), and a bunch of other stuff. I still need to play around with the Hub more, but from my first glimpses, it does appear to do a good job of organizing all of your information in one place. No other OS is doing this well. I’m wondering how much time I might save if I was on a BB 10 phone. Calendar, flash, and many other functions are built right into the Hub and work seamlessly with swipes and gestures.
Whether you’re in the Hub or any other app, you can easily exit by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Or you can do what RIM calls “peeking” and pull up from the bottom of the screen and over (to the right) to get a glimpse of what your Inbox looks like. This feature is mostly for show, but it is easy to do, and fun. It’s a small detail, like many others, that makes the interface feel very complete.
Lastly, a swipe down from the top of any home screen will bring up a menu of quick settings, so you can easily connect to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and things like that. It’s fantastic that RIM chose to include them in a permanent, prominent place because there are few things you’ll want to mess around with more than these as you change locations or try to manage battery life.
Separating work and play
If you want (or if you work at a company that forces you), your BB 10 phone can actively separate your work and personal life. A swipe down on the homescreen lets you toggle between the two modes. With a press of a button, you can make all of your work emails, notifications, apps, active apps, all of it, disappear. For once, you’ll be able to enjoy a weekend of peace. And if you get that face-punchingly annoying urge to do work on your free time, you can simply turn it back on. It works in reverse, too. You can shut off your personal accounts during work, if you’d like.
Because BlackBerry has been working in business environments for so long, RIM has an advantage here. It has many features that make it ideal for IT departments. They can even set up their own app stores for employees now, giving them access to custom BB 10 apps that they should have.
The camera … has problems
I’ve been raving about BlackBerry 10 for almost 900 words now, but one thing you haven’t heard is a compliment for the camera. While I really like RIM’s new feature that lets you fix your face in a photo (it records about 2 seconds of footage surrounding a pic), the camera app is currently quite laggy and glitchy in the Dev Alpha unit I used, and even in the near-final units employees showed me. I wasn’t impressed by the pictures these phones were taking and the camera app just didn’t respond right. Hopefully RIM will iron this problem out before launch.
70,000 apps strong
Anyone can launch a new operating system, but these days, the toughest part is getting enough developers to support your vision and create software for it. Luckily, RIM appears to be more prepared than you might expect. The company is aiming to have 70,000 apps available at launch. While I’m sure most of those apps are terrible (most apps are on any platform), execs assure me that their efforts are focused on getting top apps to the platform. They’ve made a lot of bold moves. Since last year, RIM has passed out more than 6,000 BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha units to developers and 25,000+ BlackBerry PlayBooks (PlayBooks run on the same basic OS). This, along with a series of major BlackBerry developer Jam conferences around the country has lead to a renewed sense of interest in BB 10.
Most importantly, instead of forcing developers to cater to its needs, RIM appears to be going out of its way to make BB 10 extremely compliant with the programming languages and tools that devs use to create Android, iOS, and other apps. Porting from Android is especially easy.
If RIM can launch with 70,000 apps, it will make history. For reference, Windows 8 had about 5,000 apps at launch and still hasn’t reached 70,000. This level of support has me excited that BB 10 could hit the ground running – something it desperately needs after being delayed for more than a year.
There are plenty of questions, and I haven’t gotten a glimpse at final hardware, but the BlackBerry 10 OS has serious potential. I’ve been critical of RIM in recent years, but holding off on releasing BlackBerry 10 might have been the best move it could make. The final product is fun to use and polished. There are a couple kinks, but far fewer than I’d expect in a first-generation operating system.
I’m no soothsayer, but using BlackBerry 10 made me want to use it more. That’s somewhat rare. Unlike the first time I used Windows Phone, or many of the times I’ve seen Android skins and devices, I can see myself using BlackBerry 10 on a daily basis. And I like what I see.
Here’s to hoping that RIM can pull this off. We could use some real competition for Android and iOS. BlackBerry 10 will be announced in full on January 30.