As the lights came up on Thorston Heins opening remarks at BlackBerry World 2012, expectations were... well, low. There was always the possibility that we would hear of some huge shake-up that would drastically alter RIM's course; say, switching to a services model and opening their BlackBerry Enterprise Server offerings to the competition. Or, we could hear talk of the impressive results of the hard work of a talented team of engineers and designers, and hopes and assurances that we'd love it. We've heard this kind of talk from struggling giants, including a year ago this past February when Jon Rubinstein introduced us to the Palm Pre 3 and TouchPad. Though Heins remarks included a hint at the kind of course correction we might have speculated on, he quickly transitioned to a preview of the QNX-based BlackBerry 10. And though it's familiar, it's nothing like 7.

      

Vivek Bhardwaj, RIM's Head of Software Portfolio, lead our preview and focused on two key areas, app flow and input, and threw in an impressive peek at the camera app. BlackBerry 7 did little to alter the way you use a BlackBerry. The PlayBook's OS is the basis for what we're seeing here, and is fundamentally what's running in the BlackBerry 10 Developer Alpha hardware being handed out at the event today. The PlayBook's multitasking echoed the scheme we saw in WebOS, cards that can be quickly swiped between. BlackBerry 10 introduces a scheme that stacks cards that have been opened in succession, and allows a drag to the left to peek at the stack underneath. This paradigm borrows much from WebOS 3.0, though it's unclear what's changed in terms of app switching. If it's anything like the PlayBook's multitasking method, it'll be a huge improvement over BlackBerry 7. 

A brief peek at the home screen showed large panels reminiscent of Windows Phone's Live Tiles but with a less minimalist design. Having used the icon buffet of iOS and the widget explosion that Android can become, I can see a benefit to a focused but informative home screen that emphasizes a few key tasks while deprecating other tasks to an app launcher or notification bar. BlackBerry users that move to this from any prior BlackBerry will find themselves in very unfamiliar territory. 

So if BlackBerry OS has been such a drag for so long, what kept users so attached to their devices? For some it was security concerns. Others fell in love with the BlackBerry Messengers features. Above all else, though, users loved their keyboards. RIM's portrait QWERTY keyboards are legendarily easy to use and comfortable for even longer typing sessions. As adept as I've become typing on on-screen keyboards of all sizes, I will never approach the typing speeds nor accuracy I acheived with my old 8830. But the design isn't for everyone, and RIM is designing BlackBerry 10 with these users in mind.

Users of Swype on Android will find something familliar in the demo RIM showed of its new soft keyboard. The keys look large and well spaced, and much mention was made of the predictive text engine constantly learning from a users behavior (likely sourced from SwiftKey). But instead of offering suggestions within the text field or in a bar above the keys, the suggested word is overlaid just above the next key the software thinks you might press. Often, even with longer words, once you've become adept at using a particular soft keyboard, you can complete the typing of a word faster than it would take you to recognize that a correct suggestion has been made and move your thumb from the keys to the suggested word. This solves that issue by putting the suggestion in the natural path of your thumb. This strikes me as such an obviously good idea that I want it on every device. But success here is, as always, in the execution. If the prediction engine consistently picks the wrong word then you'll do no better than with any other keyboard. 

The  last demonstration focused on the camera app, and one particular feature we might see crop up in other OSes. Having taken a picture, say where someone blinked, the user can tap on an area of the picture, such as a face, and is presented with a loupe over that area and a shuttle with which they can advance forward or backward amongst a cache of images taken just before and after the shutter release. This has been done with the entire image in phones from Android OEMs with their ICS camera apps, but RIM purports to do this with isolated areas of the picture. Technically, this seems like a good example of how far mobile computing has come. Taken within the context of mobile devices though, this seems like a really handy feature, that I'm unlikely to use very often. 

Heins and company were unwilling to discuss future hardware except to stress that the Dev Alpha devices were NOT final hardware. A few things can be inferred from the Alphas, though. If you imagine what a shrunken PlayBook would look like, you're awfully close to what you'll find if you acquire a Dev Alpha. The display is actually higher resolution than the PlayBook's at 1280x768, and at 4.2" makes it a rather dense display at that. The general design is very reminiscent of the 7" tablet with a matte black body and somewhat squared edges. The internals are most likely the same (TI OMAP 4430) though that's unconfirmed; what is known is that the device has 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of on-board storage along with microSD, NFC and quad band HSPA+ connectivity. 

FInal hardware is likely to include a similarly high resolution screen; RIM wouldn't be asking developers to optimize for that screen if they were going to simply ship a 3" 320x240 LCD. NFC can certainly be expected, and though RIM seemed to have an almost Luddite fascination with outdated SoCs in some past devices, we can expect the silicon to be equivalent or better than the PlayBook's OMAP 4430. Despite the emphasis on soft keyboards during the presentation, RIM wouldn't abandon their portrait QWERTY's, and have even committed to implementing the same text prediction engine on those devices. 

Palm's gamble was a good one. Once the dominant player in mobile computing, the shift from Palm OS to WebOS was huge and, at times, terribly well executed. But where Palm faltered (performance, hardware and bugginess, notably), the deficits were too great to overcome the successes of Android and iOS. With WebOS defeated, RIM now prepares to take its gamble; and attempt to maintain their corporate customers while also growing amongst consumers. We'll hopefully not have to wait long to see how they fare. 

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  • Lifted - Thursday, May 3, 2012 - link

    Excuse me, but you made of list of things that you claimed only BES was capable of, and I gave you a list of products that are capable of each and every one of those 'BES only' features.

    I've been working with BES since 2000, and am well aware of its' strengths and weaknesses. Please don't try to BS me on how great BES is. It's not. It was simply the only product that did what it did up until recently. Now it looks as old as BB OS 7.
    Reply
  • postop - Friday, May 4, 2012 - link

    The thing I struggle with is the cost of using a platform other than BB. We pay nothing for management software as we are not quite at the user limit for BES Express. Changing to another platform we suddenly have considerable costs for mobileiron or similar plus ongoing licensing.

    The other thing rarely mentioned is BB is natively compressed the others are not. Mobile data, particularly roaming, is insanely expensive. If we are paying $100K per year now for mobile data and we need to expect that to increase to $150K as a result of a platform change that is significant.

    I can't see the huge cost justified so users can brag about having a flashy iPhone or similar.

    I am not anti iPhone I am trialling both an iPhone and a Nokia Lumina at the moment. I dislike the fact BB has lagged behind but the platform is still saving us money. Users are primarily pushing for change for the bells and whistles not for being further enabled in their jobs.
    Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Thursday, May 3, 2012 - link

    Blackberry: Rim server, exchange, configuration, devices.
    Windows: Exchange server, already configured, devices.

    Which is easier again?

    (We actually have both for some stupid reason)
    Reply
  • DukeN - Thursday, May 3, 2012 - link

    Microsoft's mobile device management is next to non-existent. And you have to buy their System Center and a plethora of license. And you have to configure it. BES for majority of companies can be a 4 hour or less deployment. Not so much for these "competitors". Reply
  • SandmanWN - Thursday, May 3, 2012 - link

    Microsoft wouldn't even recommend using their own Windows Phone in an Exchange environment for our company. lol
    They basically admitted it wasn't ready for large Enterprises
    Reply
  • farsawoos - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - link

    This has been the other platforms' biggest shortfall. The reality of it is iOS and Android haven't established themselves as strong contenders for the enterprise space. I realize "BYOD" is on everyone's lips right now, but the solutions for IT shops are hardly concrete, and BlackBerry still offers one product that none of the other platforms can: central management.

    I was really hoping Microsoft would step up and build WP7 as the new enterprise platform of choice; however, MS still clings to the notion that WP7 is a consumer platform. While they have some really good functionality in their web and cloud services, I'm not sure how those services are applicable inside a company, and they still haven't incorporated native ADDS integration to give IT a way to manage the devices.

    I'm not saying RIM is slated for some kind of massive comeback. They've really damaged themselves over the past year or so. However, no one really stepped in to take their spot in their absence, so their chances of returning in force and reclaiming their enterprise niche is far greater than 0%.

    Just my $.02.
    Reply
  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - link

    And Google seems keen to avoid integrating enterprise services into Android, perhaps because in their ideal environment everyone uses Google Apps. I agree that it's surprising Microsoft didn't make a push for better Enterprise support, but then again they didn't see such a platform being a big success story for RIM in today's consumer motivated market. The efforts particular OEMs have made on Android (Samsung and Motorola, notably) haven't had great success, and the hooks available in iOS are excellent but insufficient.
    And this is what RIM can still leverage. If their appeal to the consumer space improves they could reinvigorate their enterprise sales. But with 50% of the US cellular market now held by smartphones, and only a fraction of that belonging to the enterprise space, there's not much value to it. Better virtualization could be the solution, providing a secure solution that provides no risk if a device is lost or stolen. Citrix solutions are easily the dominant force here, and their leveraging of encryption protocols on each platform makes these very comfortable solutions for companies. Only company that could disrupt this? Microsoft. Windows Phone Apollo is a mystery to us right now, and even Windows 8's Enterprise hooks haven't been fleshed out quite yet. Could a Metro-driven virtualization solution be the killer app that wins Windows Phone popularity in the enterprise space?
    Reply
  • DukeN - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - link

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedd...

    Look forward to having this, looks like I'll always have (atleast) a blackberry.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - link

    The camera rewind and the keyboard look great. The sliding multitasking also looks good. I think they may have something with the OS, but the problem is still developers. But they do have an incentive for that too. I hope for some new blood on the mobile front, hate RIM or not more competition keeps everyone on their toes. Reply
  • DukeN - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - link

    Doubt they have a chance of making a splash in the consumer market.

    They might stop the slide but don't think they're going to acquire back some of the market share they lose to iOS/Android.
    Reply

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