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BlackBerry 10 impressions: It can only get better

Few companies need a hit like Research in Motion. Though it helped usher in the smartphone era with the BlackBerry, RIM’s market share has been dropping like a stone since Android and the iPhone became popular. Average folks like us prefer the new operating systems and businesses are slowly migrating away from BlackBerry.

BlackBerry 10 is RIM’s big attempt to recapture the momentum it’s lost in the last few years. RIM knows it needs to get this right too, as evidenced by the many delays BB 10 has encountered. Currently, it’s set for late 2012, though after seeing it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s delayed further.

Below are my first-hand impressions of the the new OS after trying it out on a Dev Alpha unit with RIM’s new principal architect, Gary Klassen, who joined the company in March.

(I apologize for the pictures. The Dev unit’s screen was extremely bright and the hotel wasn’t lit well.)

A new keyboard

BlackBerry 10 hands on keyboard

RIM’s physical keyboard is still one of its biggest selling features, but it’s also become a sort of symbol of RIM’s inability to move forward. For better or worse, the physical keyboard is out for BlackBerry 10. The new BB 10 touch keyboard is simple looking, but has a few neat ideas. For starters, it predicts what you want to say. After you type a letter or word, different keys will light up with new words that attempt to guess what you want to say next. A swipe up on any of these words will type it out. Supposedly, as you use your BB 10 device, it will slowly learn how you talk and get better at predicting phrases and words. 

In addition, if you want to turn on CAPSLOCK, hold the Shift button and then swipe the toggle up. The keyboard also comes with a backspace button, but a quick swipe to the left anywhere on the keyboard will delete an entire word at once. This feature was fun and easy to perform. Unfortunately, that’s all we know about the keyboard. It will have a landscape mode, but it was not working on our Dev unit.

From what we’ve seen, the keyboard works well and is quite easy to type on. From what we hear, the first BB 10 device will not have a physical keyboard at all.

Unified Inbox: Peeking and stacking

Once I was done looking at the new keyboard, Klassen pulled out a second Dev Alpha phone (they resemble tiny PlayBooks). Though I wasn’t able to actually perform the maneuvers myself, he showed me another new feature of  BlackBerry 10: the unified inbox and its ability to peek at notifications and slide app pages over to get a quick glance at what you’ve been doing. 

To get to your unified inbox, you simply swipe over to it like changing homescreens on iOS or Android. The unified inbox appears to have texts, emails, missed calls, calendar events, and other things. We assume you will be able to sort it however you want. CrackBerry got sneaky and clicked on the Accounts button on this page to reveal that it is also compatible with Facebook and Twitter.

BlackBerry 10 Unified Inbox accounts screen from CrackBerry

To peek at what you have in your unified inbox, simply slide and hold your finger from the bottom of the screen up. On the right hand side, you’ll see some rough statistics, like how many unread emails and upcoming events you have. 

BlackBerry 10 hands on notification peeking

As you open up emails and attachments and whatnot, you can get back to the main inbox, and peek back at your previous screens, by pulling the page to the right. Like the Twitter app, and others on the iPad (or a bit like the tabs menu on Chrome Beta for Android), pulling on the app “cards” far enough pulls them apart and you move back to a previous level. WebOS had this feature as well. Basically, to get back to your inbox or see what email you were just reading, you have to pull the page to the right far enough to make it peel off the page (in a sense). 

BlackBerry 10 hands on flow unified inbox

I was only allowed to see these features in a limited demonstration. For example, I don’t know what happens if you get 4 or 5 levels deep into your inbox. Will it just continue stacking apps? Your guess is as good as mine.

Open apps screen

The screen to the left of the unified inbox is the open apps screen. This works a lot like a reorganized BlackBerry PlayBook homescreen (and WebOS). Instead of putting all your open apps in a row, they are displayed in a grid that you can scroll through, sort of like Windows Phone Live Tiles. We’re not sure how animated these tiles will be. Currently, they appear to show some basic info, but don’t animate. It’s a place for opening apps that are running in memory, like Google’s Recent Apps menu in Android 4.0. Klassen wouldn’t reveal whether these can be resized. They are currently so large that only four can fit on a page.

BlackBerry 10 hands on open apps

I asked whether BlackBerry 10 will keep apps fully running in the background like the BlackBerry Tablet, to which Klassen told me that keeping apps open was a feature that could be “turned off” on the PlayBook, hinting that it might not be used on these upcoming handsets. We’re hoping that BB 10 can somehow keep apps running at times, but also know when to “freeze” an app in place for resuming later, which is the technique that Android and iOS use. 

Apps tray

BlackBerry 10 apps try from CrackBerry

Klassen admitted that BlackBerry 10 had an apps tray, where you can see all of your apps and open them, but wouldn’t show it to me. I caught a glimpse of it when one of the handsets froze on me and had to be rebooted, but that’s about it. The fine folks at CrackBerry have again impressed, as they managed to distract long enough to get some pictures of this screen.

Will it work?

Unless RIM is showing us old Dev Alpha units, RIM has a lot of work left on BlackBerry 10. I wasn’t able to see the camera features either. Throughout the demo, I repeatedly encountered bugs and questions that couldn’t be answered. As Klassen repeatedly told me, “It can only get better from here.” I have to agree. There are some great ideas in BB 10, but it has a long way to go. RIM has a lot of work to do, but with Windows 8 coming out, it’s possible that the market is still volatile enough to let it back in.