Research In Motion has been on a World Tour of their own these past two weeks, offering a sneak peek of BlackBerry 10 phones to select partners and members of the media.
As I proclaimed on Monday in my From the Editor's Desk post, the CrackBerry team has been fortunate to be there every step of the way, having now handled both the first full touchscreen and physical keyboard variations of BlackBerry 10 phones in no less than three countries. Between Zach in Waterloo, Canada, Adam in New York City and James in London, UK, there's a lot more to this post than just my impressions. When we say many hands on BlackBerry 10, we mean it.
Similar to the handful of other BlackBerry 10 preview articles that have emerged throughout this early BB10 roadshow, we can't provide too many specific details on what we saw and no photos or video were allowed during our sessions.
But don't panic. There is still lots we can and will talk about. Many of you have told us that more important than knowing every little spec and detail at this point, you're most interested in knowing how we felt after spending some quality time on BlackBerry 10. In other words, Was it love at first touch?
The answer to that question was the same for all of us... HELL YEAH! Keep reading for more on what we saw and to learn the ten things that have our hearts racing for BlackBerry 10 so far.
Setting the stage and guessing the names
Previous looks at BlackBerry 10 in action, including the on-stage demo at BlackBerry World in May as well as CrackBerry's initial hands-on, were delivered via the Dev Alpha device running a canned preview version of BlackBerry 10. Though this provided a great visual of BlackBerry 10 and how the flow, glance and peek experience would work, it was more of an interactive demo of BlackBerry 10 than it was BlackBerry 10 up and running. We were of the understanding this was RIM's way to be able to show off BlackBerry 10 without taking the risk of unveiling more than they wanted. A smart approach, but it was one that the naysayers of the world could still call "vaporware" on and get away with. Not anymore.
While BlackBerry was busy showing off the preview build in May and June, it's clear that behind the scenes the teams have been hard at work pushing BlackBerry 10 further ahead every day. Much progress has been made. We witnessed BlackBerry 10 software running on the two BlackBerry 10 phones that will be first to hit the market in 2013. As we learned from our interview with RIM CEO, Thorsten Heins, and CMO, Frank Boulben, RIM will launch BlackBerry 10 in 2013 with two flagship phones, marketing the full touchscreen and physical keyboard variations together. Both will be announced at the same time, though the availability dates will be staggered slightly with the full touchscreen model up for sale first.
RIM wouldn't provide any details on what the devices will be called, but personally (Kevin's opinion) I'm starting to think, based on my Vulcan-like logic, that we will see BlackBerry 10 phones get slotted into the existing Bold, Torch and Curve product families. We know, according to RIM's CEO, that "BlackBerry 10 will proliferate RIM's product portfolio." We also know that RIM plans to release more than just two phones next year. While the first full touchscreen and full keyboard phones will be positioned as high-end devices, we will also see entry level devices running BlackBerry 10 before the year is through.
Currently, Bold is firmly planted as the full keyboard flagship of the BlackBerry lineup. Torch is positioned as the all out touchscreen experience on BlackBerry. And Curve is well-established as the entry level device family rounding out the BlackBerry phone portfolio. When we asked Boulben during our recent interview Why call it BlackBerry 10? he responded that while he wasn't at the company when that decision was made, that his understanding was that previously BlackBerry was single digit (OS 5, 6, 7) and that because the new phones are on the next generation QNX platform that it made sense to go double digit.
Assuming BlackBerry wants to keep things simple while transitioning away from the legacy BlackBerry OS to the QNX-based OS, it just makes logical sense that we'll see these first two BlackBerry 10 phones launch as Bold and Torch devices.
We could be wrong of course, but when it came to picking up the first full touchscreen BlackBerry 10 phone, we couldn't help but think we were playing with the newest Torch, and with the keyboard device, the newest Bold.
What we observed that we can tell you about
RIM told us that the BlackBerry 10 hardware we were looking at was pretty much final form. We've heard that before over the years, which means there may be some small tweaks that occur as the hardware ramps up from prototype to full scale production, but for the most part the hardware design and components are set.
The full touchscreen phone (what we're currently thinking of as the newest Torch) has that understated yet classy BlackBerry look. It's familiar to the Dev Alpha, but more refined and polished. We like the look a lot. It feels good in the hand. There's nothing disappointing about it. The 4.2" display with 1280x768 resolution hits a sweet spot. It's big, but not too big. Like the Dev Alpha, in the hand the phone is extremely comfortable to hold.
The full keyboard phone (what we're currently thinking of as the newest Bold), was along the lines of what we've been hoping for and expecting to see. The phone's footprint is similar to the Bold 9900, featuring a 1:1 ratio at 720x720 resolution. As has been previously posted on, we were stoked to see with our own eyes that both devices had removable battery doors.
Both the full touchscreen and keyboard models have that unmistakable BlackBerry look to them, which we all agree is a good thing. In today's sea of smartphones, BlackBerry 10 phones should have no trouble being recognized from a distance. The real magic of BlackBerry 10 happens though in your hand, once you power the device on.
We were blown away with the BlackBerry 10 experience. Considering we're still over four months away from these phones hitting the market, we would have handed over our hard earned cash right now to walk away with one. Between now and January RIM will spend the time polishing up the software so it's perfect, but what we handled was a complete operating system. It was fast, it was fluid and it was FUN to use.
10 things we're looking forward to in BlackBerry 10 so far...
Prior to our hands-on time with BlackBerry 10 phones, we were already working on our list of the top ten things we're looking forward to in BlackBerry 10. Having now experienced BlackBerry 10 for real, we can tackle this list with conviction. Here it goes, in no particular order...
1. BlackBerry 10 by Choice
When RIM showed off the BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard at BlackBerry World (and not a physical keyboard version), it had some people incorrectly assuming this meant that BlackBerry would be abandoning the physical keyboard moving forward. RIM's CEO was quick to go on record the next day and tell the media that there will be a full keyboard version of BlackBerry 10.
We love the fact that BlackBerry is giving users the ability to choose how they want to experience BlackBerry 10. Among the existing BlackBerry user base, for many the physical keyboard is specifically what has kept them from switching to another platform. Having both full touchscreen and physical keyboard models available from the get go makes sure everybody is happy.
As for which model most people will end up migrating towards, we're not so sure just yet. Historically, all of us on the CrackBerry team are huge fans of physical keyboards. After going hands-on with both BlackBerry 10 phones, both Adam and Zach said they're 100% going for the full touchscreen BlackBerry 10 phone when available. On the other hand, James was sold on the physical keyboard model. As for myself... well, I'll just buy both and keep one in each pocket. :)
2. It's all about the "Flow"
I don't think we can overstate just how much we're loving the "flow" experience of BlackBerry 10. It's unlike anything on the market today. One of the previous criticisms against the BlackBerry PlayBook's operating system user interface was that it took a little too much inspiration from webOS. Of course we'd argue that the average person on the street doesn't even know what webOS is, but it was hard to find a review of the PlayBook (CrackBerry's review included) that didn't make mention of the similarities. In our opinion, this previous resemblance goes away with BlackBerry 10.
In BlackBerry 10, RIM has created a user experience that is truly unique. And it's not just unique. It's better. Wayyy better. Taking advantage of the multi-tasking power of the QNX-based software and the high performance hardware under the hood, BlackBerry 10 delivers an "always in" app experience that is faster and so much more compelling than the "open and close" experience which is standard today on other mobile platforms.
There's a big difference between seeing the flow demonstrated and actually putting it to use. Once you start to experience the seconds saved during every interaction with the phone, going back to any other mobile UI feels almost painful by comparison. It only takes a moment to learn the touchscreen gestures that pull the flow experience together. And that's ok. As we've said before, RIM isn't trying to out Apple Apple here in the simplicity department. Rather, they are addressing the needs of BlackBerry People - people who want to get things done while on the go. And it's clear to us that a little bit of time invested upfront in learning a new user interface is well worth it in terms of the enhanced user experience it delivers.
Let us be clear here. We don't want to scare anybody into thinking BlackBerry 10 is complicated either. It's not. Any former or current BlackBerry user will immediately find it familiar. And any first time BlackBerry owner will be able to learn the ins and outs of the new operating system quickly. The flow rocks. PERIOD.
[ Note: The video at the top of this section is from the Dev Alpha demo, and isn't totally "accurate" anymore but at least gives an overview of the concept of Flow ]
3. Unified Messaging FTW
BlackBerry phones have a reputation for being the best communication tools on the planet, and thanks to the accessible from anywhere unified inbox on BlackBerry 10, that accolade isn't going away. With BlackBerry 10 you have the ability to jump into your inbox from anywhere on the device -- literally from within any application -- with a quick swipe gesture. We all love this feature and it's one that again makes BlackBerry 10 unique. There's no need to pull down a notification box and tap into a different app. There's no need to go back to the home screen or go into a task switching mode to then jump into another app to check your message. With BlackBerry 10 it's always right there, instantly accessible. Zero time wasted. We love this.
4. The BEST keyboards, whether physical or touch
BlackBerry is already known for having the best physical keyboards on the market (the Bold 9900 has the best phone keyboard of all time), and with BlackBerry 10 they also want to be known for having the best touchscreen keyboard on the market. From our experience so far with BB10 keyboards, they're definitely on track.
The BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard was pretty good on the Dev Alpha demo, but the performance is much improved on the actual BlackBerry 10 hardware and software (on the Dev Alpha device the touch keyboard was actually written in Adobe Air. Since then it has been re-written in OpenGL which combined with actual BB10 hardware makes a big difference - it's much faster, responsive and smooth). The physical size of the touchscreen device makes for a spacious keyboard that permits comfortable and speedy two thumb typing. As we mentioned earlier, we are longtime physical keyboard guys but we had no trouble adapting almost instantly to the BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard.
Overall, it's a great touchscreen typing experience. RIM is working with SwiftKey for the predictive text engine, but the UI and design of the keyboard is all RIM. They've taken what they've learned from over a decade of making the best physical keyboards and applied that knowledge to the touchscreen. RIM knows people are looking at the keys when they type, so they have placed suggested words near the keys you'll be hitting next (having to break eye contact from the keys to look up at a row above the keyboard breaks your typing flow). Brilliant. When typing with two thumbs we actually found our cadence so fast and typing so rhythmic that we didn't feel the need to use the suggestions that appear on the keyboard all that often unless it was for bigger and harder to spell words (for the most part our thumbs are typing faster than our brains can process the suggestions). However, when holding the phone in one hand and typing with one thumb we found the placement of these suggested words to be extremely useful at increasing our typing speed. Again, BlackBerry 10 offers choice. Whether you type one handed or two-handed, you're supported.
The touchscreen keyboard is also smart and continually learning. As you type it learns where you actually strike on the glass and refines your strike targets over time for improved accuracy. The keyboard can scan your communications to better learn names and vocabulary that you use regularly. The touchscreen keyboard can support three languages simultaneously too. So for those people who tend to mix languages in while messaging will easily be able to do so. And yes, Chinese will be supported at launch. Like we said, so far it appears this touchscreen keyboard has the ability to make believers out of the most hardcore physical keyboard people.
As for the physical keyboard, we have to keep the details limited. But let's just say RIM knows how high a bar they set with the Bold 9900's keyboard, and that's something they don't want to go any lower on.
5. Optimized for one-handed ease of use
Another hallmark of the traditional BlackBerry experience that users love is the ability to use the phone one-handed. Back in the day I'd cite examples such as using the phone inconspiculously under the board room table during meetings or in the car while driving (not cool, we know). These days, as I learned from Gary Klassen, Principle Architect at RIM, on my recent trip to Waterloo, a better illustration of the need for one-handed use takes place in the grocery store. You need to be able to message back and forth with your wife to figure out what you're supposed to buy for dinner while holding your grocery basket and screaming toddler in one arm. This means you need to be able to communicate and carry out important tasks effectively with just one hand.
BlackBerry 10 is designed and optimized for one-handed ease of use. If you want to use the device with two hands you can, but you absolutely can have full control over the phone holding the phone in one hand, comfortably using one thumb on the touchscreen to get things done. We can't get into all the specifics, but we can say this notion is continued throughout BlackBerry 10, beyond the home screen and flow experience.
This is yet another unique to BlackBerry 10 feature that we are gaga for. Other mobile platforms think of mobile as meaning "away from your computer." BlackBerry takes the meaning of being mobile literally - you need to be able to really use your phone while literally being mobile, while doing things. It's a phone and OS designed for people on the go. BlackBerry 10 does not require that you stop what you're doing to use your phone.
6. QNX Performance, Stability and Simplicity
There are 78+ million BlackBerry phone users in the world. In comparison, there's (approximately) two million BlackBerry PlayBook owners out there. This means the vast majority of current and former BlackBerry phone owners have never fully experienced how different a BlackBerry device built on the QNX platform is compared to the traditional BlackBerry OS. The difference is HUGE. The QNX-based BlackBerry OS is a power house among mobile operating systems. All of the historical gripes about BlackBerry phones -- hour glassing, the need for battery pulls, not enough app memory, pain in the butt OS updates, etc. -- all go away with BlackBerry 10.
In terms of underlying code, BlackBerry 10 is all new compared to BlackBerry 7 and older phones. Visually there is continuity -- people who know BlackBerry will recognize it as BlackBerry -- but none of the baggage is carried over. And while the traditional BlackBerry OS was never designed from the get go for touchscreen input (RIM adapted it to be touchscreen friendly), BlackBerry 10 has absolutely been designed as a touchscreen OS.
It's a next generation platform for BlackBerry, and those making the jump from the old platform to the new are going to be extremely impressed by the performance, stability and simplicity that come with this change.
7. Designed for people who value their time and want to have fun
"We need tools, not toys." The Martinez brothers dropped that line during a Be Bold BlackBerry commercial earlier this year, and the message resonated with the CrackBerry community. Over the years BlackBerry has always been seen as a communication and productivity tool first and foremost. With BlackBerry 10 phones, BlackBerry can now be as unproductive as it can be productive, equally well. It still excels at productivity and communication. But you can most definitely use it to have fun and kill time, whether it's playing games (BlackBerry 10 is a great platform for gaming) or watching a movie. What we're loving about BlackBerry 10 is that it never loses sight of its priorities. It's a tool first, toy second. But it does everything 100%.
All of us who went hands on with BlackBerry 10 have also spent plenty of time on the competition, be it Android, iOS and even Windows Phone and webOS. And though there are things we like about the competition, when we use these other devices we always feel like there's something missing from the experience that BlackBerry does a better job of delivering. Our collective realization is that the other platforms don't think enough about how you will actually use the phone while out and about and they tend to treat all apps equally. They don't prioritize the mobile experience enough.
BlackBerry historically, and even more so in BlackBerry 10, doesn't lose sight of the fact people first and foremost want a smartphone to communicate and get things done. We've already mentioned the many ways BlackBerry 10 pays attention to these priorities. The BlackBerry flow experience saves you time. Unified messaging that's accessible from everywhere does too, and it makes it painless to always stay on top of your correspondence even while doing other things. Designing a user interface that's friendly to one handed use is another example where BlackBerry is paying attention to how people will actually use their phone in the real world. Heck, even the ability to swap out a battery if need arises is a nod to this notion of being a tool before a toy.
BlackBerry 10 is for people who value their time. Not everybody out there does, but we're sure happy RIM is building BlackBerry 10 phones for people who do.
8. Working Smarter, Not Harder
On the current BlackBerry phone OS, there are a couple of areas where RIM has tried to be really clever in terms of helping out the user. The best example is on the BlackBerry menu. When you hit the menu button, though multiple options are available it's often the one you want that's already selected (this was more prevalent on older devices and versions of the BBOS). Heck, with the old track wheel BlackBerry devices like the 7290 and 8700 these pre-selected actions were so freakishly accurate you could almost use the phones with your eyes closed. It's a subtle feature, but these kinds of details make a world of difference on device like a phone which gets used literally 100+ times per day.
BlackBerry 10 makes a marked return to this notion of working smarter for the user. We already mentioned the intelligence behind the learning keyboard. Another thing we're liking (that we can talk about) is the way BlackBerry 10 tries to pull in useful information for you without making you go look for it. The prime example is in the calendar app. If you have a meeting scheduled with an individual, BlackBerry 10 pulls in everything it can find about that contact from the various social sources connected to it so it's right there. Again, we can't get into the details, but there are a lot of little things like this in BlackBerry 10 that users will appreciate.
9. Quality App, Gaming and Multimedia Experiences
The BlackBerry 10 platform is capable of delivering app, game and multimedia experiences that are best in class across mobile platforms. It's a massive difference comparing BlackBerry 10 phones to current BlackBerry phones. While BlackBerry phones to date don't technically lack much in the way of features and capabilities, the experience delivered trying to use these features to their fullest is often frustrating. Because of this, you find a lot of "average" BlackBerry users don't use their BlackBerry for much more than the basics. It's clear that BlackBerry 10 phones will deliver a great experience across the feature set. You're going to want to download apps and play games on your BB10 phone. You're going to want to snap a bazillion photos and videos. You're going to want to watch movies. And way more.
The ongoing challenge for RIM of course is getting as many quality third party apps and games on the platform as possible leading up to the launch of BlackBerry 10. BlackBerry is doing everything they can to woo developers. The app development tools available are much improved. RIM is giving out Dev Alpha devices to developers who attend BlackBerry Jam events. RIM is proactively working to get those must-have apps onto the platform.
Mobile apps are out there today and they are expected. That being the case, we don't think it's the app selection in App World come January that will cause people to run out and buy a BlackBerry 10 phone, at least not initially. But a lack of apps might prevent potential customers from buying it. We really hope developers continue to jump on board and support BlackBerry 10. There's no doubt to us that BlackBerry 10 has legs and the people who buy the phones are going to be hungry for apps, games and content. Next month RIM is holding the BlackBerry Jam Americas conference in San Jose, where we'll hopefully get a good update on how they're progressing. If you're a mobile developer and reading this, listen to us... you need to get your apps on BB10!
10. Putting the crack back in CrackBerry... in a good way
BlackBerry got the nickname CrackBerry for a reason - because it's addictive. In our limited time spent on BlackBerry 10 so far, we all agree this is the most addicting smartphone experience we've used.. well... EVER.
It's not just the blinking red light that pulls you in anymore. The device is addictive because it's literally so fun and enjoyable to use.
You just want to turn on the phone and aimlessly flick at it even when you're not doing anything. The whole BlackBerry flow, peek and glance experience is not only productive, but fun (and to use Adam's words, "it's swipey"). Even the lock screen, which we can't give any details on, is something you just want to play with. Typing on the touchscreen keyboard is actually addictive. Swiping up words becomes a game.
Historically, and especially in enterprise where individuals have been handed their BlackBerry as a work phone, fun and enjoyable would be the last words used to describe a BlackBerry. But we think that all changes with BlackBerry 10. You can have fun while getting work done. And if there's one thing we all love more than being productive, it's having fun.
We could tell you more but we'd have to kill you
Seriously, we could tell you way more and would love to, but we've probably already said too much.
The bottom line is that all of us on the CrackBerry team who went hands on with BlackBerry 10 are genuinely more excited having used the phones than we were going into it (and were pretty excited for it to begin with).
There's no doubt in our minds that BlackBerry 10 will win back a lot of mobile mindshare when it's officially unveiled. We live in a world where every phone will soon be a smartphone, and with BlackBerry 10 RIM will show the world they've created a smarter smartphone experience.
When BlackBerry 10 hits the market it won't be BlackBerry by Choice. Our new mantra will be BlackBerry because it's Better.