Come January 30 and BlackBerry 10, Research in Motion's much awaited and make-or-break OS, will be launched. While India might need to wait a few weeks to experience BB10, here's our take on the upcoming OS, based on our hands-on experience with the BB10 Dev Alpha B device at the recent BlackBerry Jam Asia and interviews with key RIM executives.
The hands-on experience with the BB10 Dev Alpha B was important because strong rumours state the specs of the BB10 Dev Alpha B are almost identical to the final Z10 BB10 full touch smartphone that comes with the following features:
- a dual core 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470 processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8960 for the US and Canada markets)
- a 4.2-inch display with 1280 x 768 resolution at an eye-popping 356 PPI (pixels per inch), which leaves the iPhone's Retina display with 326 PPI quite far behind
- Connectivity options would include NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, 3G and, of course, Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n)
- an 8MP AF shooter and a 2MP front facing camera with 1080p video recording
- microHDMI-Out for AV with microUSB for PC interfacing and charging
- And lastly, 2GB of RAM with 16GB of internal storage (hot-swap microSD)
The device is also touted to have a1800 mAh removable battery. There were also some rumours of a monster 2800 mAh battery being in a later BB10 device that would be powered by a quad-core 1.5GHz processor. According to RIM CEO Thorsten Heins, the smartphone maker will have a total of six BB10 smartphones – three with all-touch displays and three with physical keyboards in the traditional BlackBerry styling, hopefully with a few tweaks. And finally, the Z10 will have a range of sensors, including one for ambient light, accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope and face detection capabilities for phone calls.
The developer phone for the all new OS 10
The beta OS on the BB10 Dev Alpha B device was smooth and highly responsive with absolutely no lag when we used the demo devices at BB Jam Asia. RIM has clearly come a long way from the early Storm devices, which RIM touted as iPhone killers only to commit ‘hara-kiri’ with poor touchscreens and a buggy UI at best. Despite multiple applications running in the background, the system functioned liked a well-oiled machine – another plus given that QNX, the OS on which BB10 is based on, is renowned for its multitasking abilities. This was the first time I didn’t see the infamous hourglass icon that's been the bane of my BB experience. Vivek Bhardwaj, RIM's Head of Software Portfolio, explained that the user interface in BB10 is built around fluid gestures and swipes, rather than individual taps to get into and out of different apps and functions—which is why there's no Home button either.
But what wowed me as a die-hard QWERTY lover was the keyboard. Admittedly, I have not used iPhones, but this keyboard left the Android keyboards, even on large devices such as Samsung Galaxy Note 2, far behind. The individual keys seemed perfectly spaced, just like RIM's physical keyboards, and with suggested words popping up not just at the top of the keyboard but across individual keys, it's brilliant! RIM claims the new BlackBerry 10 keyboard learns a user's writing style and suggests words to help them type faster and accurately. And if you tend to mistype certain letters, the keyboard will remember and subtly adjust to make sure you hit the right key. I’ve hated touch screens for years primarily because of the keyboard, since I email quite a bit and write extensively using my smartphone, but this keyboard, for the first time ever, left me in high anticipation of a full-touch smartphone. Urpo Karjalainen, RIM's Regional Managing Director for Asia Pacific, swears that he can type faster on the new BB10 keyboard than on his Bold 9900, which has perhaps the best physical keyboard to date. This is especially because the newer on-screen keyboard allows him to write without typing.
Then there's BlackBerry Hub, which is all about productivity. Whichever app or feature you are using, a gentle upward swipe shows you notifications from the BlackBerry Hub, which encompasses e-mail, BBM, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn et al along with other applications of your choice and, of course, your plain vanilla phone calls. An upward and then right swipe will take you into the Hub itself, where you can directly post a Facebook update, check your mail or send a picture using BBM. The social applications are baked into the Hub and you needn't go to the individual apps to post updates. RIM says the aim is to flow effortlessly in and out of your messages and conversations.
For busy business people who have meeting requests to deal with, the Hub also provides context to that particular meeting with the e-mails referring to that meeting instantly available in a tab with pictures from LinkedIn of the person you have to meet. So if you're the type who likes blind dates, you no longer need to wonder which among the two ladies reading a book in the cafe is the one you're there to meet. This feature and the contacts feature use contact management technology from Gist that RIM acquired. Why LinkedIn? Because unlike Facebook, where users can have pictures of their dog, hardly anyone uses a fake or irrelevant picture on LinkedIn since it is used for professional social networking.
Pictures from the camera were sharp even in not-so-great lighting conditions. I've never been a fan of BlackBerry smartphone cameras (heck, its current flagship BB9900 Bold has no auto focus!), but this was a welcome change. But the wow novelty was the time shift camera. You can edit elements of the picture and literally create picture-perfect moments. The Time Shift mode captures milliseconds before and after the picture, so you can scroll back on the dial to open one person's eyes, then forward to catch another friend smiling instead of looking lifeless, and thus combine it all to create the perfect picture. The individual editing capabilities are what differentiates it from the time shift camera capabilities available on Android smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S3.
The browser is also supposed to be the best on any BlackBerry yet and according to RIM, the new BB10 browser beats even desktop browsers when it comes to HTML5 compliance. While RIM has developed far better browsers on its newer OS 7.X devices, I wasn't so enamoured by the browser myself, but since it was a beta version, I’ll wait till the final version to make a judgement. While it was fast and had great sharing options, I felt rendering of some websites could have been better.
But all of this will do nothing for RIM if it doesn't get the application ecosystem right. The BlackBerry PlayBook was a great tablet with excellent hardware and a good OS, but the lack of applications pretty much killed it. I spoke to Annie Mathew, Head of Alliances and Developer Relations at RIM India, and she insisted that BB10 would have the maximum number of applications that any new mobile OS had at launch.
Chris Smith, VP, BlackBerry Application Platform, said that the aim is not just to ensure that BB10 has the top 100 Android and iOS applications at launch, but to go after the top thousands of Android and iOS applications. RIM has also a $10,000 (USD) guarantee that any developer who submits their application before January 21, and then makes at least $1000 (USD) from sales of the app on BlackBerry World (the new name for BB App World) in a year, will get $9000 (USD) more from RIM—thus guaranteeing that whatever developers make from the sales of their apps, they will end with at least $10,000 (USD) in their bank accounts.
When you add that to RIM saying it has made things incredibly easy for applications to be ported from Android, especially with apps written in HTML5 and taking advantage of technologies like WebGL, you realise that RIM has put in a terrific amount of effort on wooing developers. And hopefully, the results will show. At BB Jam Asia, RIM demonstrated how apps written on HTML 5 performed with similar functionality as apps written natively for BB10.
The all new on-screen QWERTY keyboard with hints
RIM has also learnt from past mistakes, most notably with the BlackBerry PlayBook where the tablet was launched with limited functionality in some key areas and OS 2.0 that was delayed. Alec Saunders, RIM's VP for Developer Relations, minced no words when he admitted that the PlayBook OS 2.0 was a mess from the delivery perspective and promised that BB10 would be very different from the perspective of making it far simpler for developers to offer compelling applications on the BB10 platform. True to his words, the BB10 SDK went Gold on December 11, which means that the development tools are now set in stone as regards the launch devices, and developers can create apps that will run on the final BB10 hardware.
So, how many applications will be there at launch? Will Angry Birds be available free or will you need to pay as on the BlackBerry PlayBook, without any free versions available? That’s a question that is critical in price-conscious-India where users prefer free apps. The answers will be out on January 30 and I suspect this will play a huge role in whether BB10 goes on to resurrect RIM or if it will end up being the final nail in its coffin.
It's also fairly clear that BBM on BB10 will feature video calling over Wi-Fi to other BBM contacts on Wi-Fi in addition to voice calling. While none of the RIM executives I spoke to at BB Jam Asia confirmed it and all we got were sheepish smiles, no one explicitly denied it either. While currently even BBM Voice is not available in India thanks to regulatory concerns, RIM has to iron out these issues before launch.
However, while it is clear to anyone technically inclined that BBM is the far superior, robust and highly reliable mobile IM offering compared to unreliable mobile IM offerings such as WhatsApp, the cross-platform functionality of WhatsApp is making BBM far less attractive to Indian users. These users are willing to sacrifice reliability and robustness for cross-platform functionality in a highly price conscious market that is also going the cheap Android way in droves. But at the moment RIM insists it has no plan for a cross-platform version of BBM, or even a scaled down 'BBM Lite' sort of application. Clearly, in a price conscious market like India, BBM no longer remains a USP for RIM.
A few leaked screens of BB10 OS – Image Source
What's also different about BB10 will be that the BlackBerry PIN will have lesser importance. On earlier BlackBerry smartphones, switching devices was a pain and invariably, I had to re-invite BBM contacts. Not anymore! With BBM 7, the BlackBerry ID becomes the lynchpin and once you provide your BB ID credentials, all contacts are restored. While Vivek Bhardwaj said that the PIN would remain since it is critical for RIM's communications and security infrastructure, it’s clear that the PIN is no longer as important—on a lighter note, Bhardwaj spoke of a recent trip to the Middle East where rich Arabs offered him envelopes stuffed with cash if he could get them BB PINs of their choice. Those days are surely behind us now.
Then there's RIM famed security capabilities and BlackBerry Balance in BB10 will enable users to have two separate, securely walled off but simultaneously active profiles on their BlackBerry 10 devices – one for work and one for personal use. The work profile would comply with your IT policy and could be controlled by your IT administrator and even remotely wiped by them when you leave an organisation. So, in the work profile, some websites could be blocked, but in the personal profile that you can access with a swipe, the same websites would be open. Karjalainen says this is another key feature whose time has come in an era when many executives carry two smartphones, one for personal and another for business use.
But finally, it’s clear that the Z1O and the less known about QWERTY X10 running BB10 will be priced at the premium brackets in India. What made RIM a force to contend with in India were the cheaper Curve smartphones and BBM. While BBM is losing its appeal, will RIM have cheaper BB10 devices in India? If not, BB10 could pretty much go the iPhone route in terms of actual users despite the iPhone being a bestseller in Western markets. Karjalainen said multiple devices at multiple price points would be available, though he would not commit to any time frame or even if some of these would come in 2013.
So, the range of applications, application pricing, price of the BB10 smartphone itself and battery life – these would the key to figure out whether or not BB10 will be a success. But for those, you'll have to wait till January 30 and perhaps a bit longer for the India pricing.