I got my hands on Research in Motion's next-generation BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system at the company's BlackBerry Jam developers conference, where struggling RIM is touting the delayed smartphone platform as the engine that will turn its fortunes around.
The trouble is, BB10 won't be here in time for Christmas and RIM has been vague on the exact timing of its release, other than to say on Tuesday that it's coming in the "first part of the first quarter" of 2013. So the company will have to muddle along for a few more months still before its presumptive saviour arrives.
The version of BB10 I got to have a play with at BlackBerry Jam isn't a finished product. It's the "Dev Alpha B" build that RIM recently released as an SDK to its developers, so there are some key BB10 features that are missing in the build, plus it seemed a little buggy to me (more on that later).
RIM had this truncated version of BB10 loaded on several reference design phones to let reporters and analysts give it a whirl. These simple devices, sporting 1,280 x 768, 4.2in touchscreens, had on/off buttons at the top, volume controls on the side, and back-side cameras. Not particularly flashy, but capable enough for checking out the software.
BB10 has some fun eye candy right up front. To wake up the phone, I drag a finger up from the BlackBerry logo at the bottom of the device to the top of the screen, and find that I'm pushing a curved, bluish shadow up the touchscreen to reveal the home screen like the sun rising on a new day (see the image below).
It's a cool, curvy twist on the near-universal angularity of smartphone interfaces. Though it's not present in the SDK I played with, there's another fun graphic for putting the phone into a low-power sleep mode, which works when you pull a digital "curtain" down the screen from the top.
That's all very nice, but what about the meat-and-potatoes of BB10? Like I said, there are some key features missing from the barebones dev build but luckily, RIM rep Jeff Gadway was on hand with a more advanced phone that had stuff like BlackBerry Hub and BlackBerry Balance loaded, so I was able to fiddle around with those key features on the new OS as well.
These reference phones weren't capable of making voice calls, and access to BlackBerry App World was limited to free downloads – I loaded up a free children's puzzle game but wasn't able to access the music, video, and other media content RIM has added to its online app store for the upcoming BB10 launch.
The first thing I did in my brief hands on was to go to the phone's settings, to see what I could screw up. To my surprise, that actually worked. I couldn't find a way to adjust the touchscreen sensitivity, though Gadway insisted you can do that. Instead I changed the font size – and the settings page immediately started stuttering badly as soon as I did so. Not a great sign, but as RIM said, this isn't a finished product and the bug appeared to be isolated to settings. Backing out to the home screen eliminated the issue and it didn't crop up again elsewhere.
Like I said, missing from the Dev Alpha B build are features like BlackBerry Hub, which is a new integration of the core productivity apps in BB10 like Calendar and BlackBerry Messenger. BlackBerry Balance is another key addition to the next-gen OS, which lets users create two separate, walled-off profiles on a single device, one for work and one for their own personal use. Gadway showed me BlackBerry Balance in action on his own phone, and it certainly looks like a very attractive solution to the "bring-your-own-device" (BYOD) trend in the enterprise that has CIOs pulling out their hair.
As for what I could access on the SDK version of BB10, I really liked some of the stuff RIM has jammed into its picture-taking software. I was able to move the green focus box around the field when preparing to take a shot, for example, which seems like a handy little solution for those times when the automated focus tool gets confused.
There's also a picture mode called Time Shift (see the image above) that basically snaps a bunch of quick pictures of your subject, then generates a radial menu which you can scroll through to find the shot you want – great for capturing that perfect expression on a squirmy subject, like a baby, for example.
RIM's proprietary BlackBerry browser for BB10, built up from the Torch Mobile acquisition of a few years back, is an excellent tool for scouring the web with a few distinctive BlackBerry touches. Operating on the principle that users should be able to do everything on their phone with just one thumb, the browser's address bar is located at the bottom of the screen for more convenient access.
Tabs for new windows and bookmarks are off to the left side in a collapsible window that politely shuffles off when not in use to make more screen real estate available to the web page. Searching for a page or keyword in the browser generates an auto-complete function that seemed as reasonably hit or miss as any I've seen elsewhere, plus it stores prior searches you've done.
The first BlackBerry 10 devices will be touchscreen phones, with models with physical keyboards coming later. There are certainly plenty of RIM loyalists who swear by their signature QWERTY keyboard, but it's nice to see that the company gets that touch is by far the most dominant interface these days, and it's added some cool wrinkles to its own take on the touchscreen keyboard.
For example, when I'm in BlackBerry Messenger composing a message, I can delete the last word I wrote simply by swiping "backwards" from right to left with my thumb. A downward swipe brings up the symbols on the alternate keyboard, which you can toggle through to find the one you want. RIM has also built an emoticon button into the BlackBerry Messenger keyboard in BB10, giving you access to all the smiley faces you could ever want to sprinkle throughout your texts.
Some more odds and ends: There was no voice recognition functionality in the beta version I tested, though Gadway said it could be built into the final version. NFC capability is built into the SDK, he said, though I wasn't able to test it. The QR Code reader worked pretty nicely, though.
To sum up, BlackBerry 10 is a promising new platform from a company that desperately needs something exciting to turn things around. But we'll need to look at a more complete version of BB10 before we're ready to proclaim it the game-changer RIM wants us to believe it is.