An idea of what BlackBerry 10 might look like on the Milan

Things are looking pretty good for the BlackBerry 10 Smartphones rumored to be released in 2012. A few weeks ago, we got our first look at BlackBerry London, and then a sneak peek at the BlackBerry Milan. Both phones feature a distinctive angular styling with some nice silver accents. Design aesthetics aside, one question on our BlackBerry tour of Europe remains prominent: where are the buttons?

Except for the keyboard, one of the most-recognizable aspects of a BlackBerry is its buttons. Call, menu, back, and end/home are so crucial to the BlackBerry experience that it's hard to imagine using a Research In Motion Smartphone without them. And no trackpad either? How in the world does RIM expect people to use these phones?

The buttons on a BlackBerry make it very easy to use the phone with only one hand. Everything is but a thumb movement away. Without the almost iconic buttons, will you be forced to do everything on the BlackBerry with two hands? Will people be required to do the BlackBerry Prayer every time they use the device?

As both a BlackBerry PlayBook owner and a Torch 9860 user, I have a little experience in using full touchscreen devices. I'm confident that after a short adjustment period, most people won't even miss those buttons - one-handed use or not.

Hardware buttons are how we connect with and use our BlackBerry devices. I don't even have to look at my Smartphone to know where the buttons are; my thumb instinctively knows how to use them. Learning how to use a BlackBerry without buttons won't exactly be a simple matter. After all, we've spent years getting to know how to use the dedicated hardware buttons, changing those ingrained behaviors won't happen overnight.

But you know, the world is always changing, and we BlackBerry lovers must change with it. Today's Smartphones have fewer and fewer dedicated hardware buttons. While the rumored BlackBerry Nevada might be our BlackBerry 10 device with a QWERTY keyboard, I rather doubt that it will have Call, menu, back, and end buttons.

The disappearing buttons may be a bit of an inconvenience for us old-school BlackBerry users. We all know that each of those four buttons does way more than just one thing each. For new BlackBerry owners - who may have never used a BlackBerry before 2012 - the button-less approach should actually be easier for them to learn. Without all those options to figure out, a button-less BlackBerry is just a little bit easier to use, a little bit more accessible, a little bit more appealing to the newcomer crowd.  

BlackBerry 10 Smartphones will be powered by the same QNX RTOS at the heart of the BlackBerry PlayBook, so I'm going out on a fairly sturdy limb in saying that the experience on the BlackBerry phones will be very much like the experience on the BlackBerry tablet. In fact many of the concerns with the button-less approach are alleviated by what I've seen in the PlayBook OS 2.0 developer build running on my tablet now.

No Phone button? How will I make calls?

Phone calls on the BlackBerry Milan

One of the nicest things about my BlackBerry Torch 9860 is that the phone functions of the device (did you know these BlackBerry Smartphones make calls, too?) are so easily accessible. Press the phone button on the left and you're immediately in the phone app. There you can "dial" a number, check your phone logs, and call a person from your contacts. Without a dedicated button, you'll have to scroll through screen after screen until you can find the right app to launch to make a call, right? 

Well, no, definitely not. I don't know how to break it to you, but the Android and iOS operating systems seem to be doing well enough without a dedicated call button. Some Android phones have a dedicated software button to open the phone app or the contacts; and of course, iOS has its phone app. I can't imagine that using the phone functions of a button-less BlackBerry Superphone would be any more difficult. Phone, just like Messages, is just another app, another way to connect with people.

The 2.0 PlayBook beta gives some insight as to how this won't really be a problem. At the top of the icon panes is an area where you can easily create shortcuts to as many as six most-used apps; though there will probably less available on the Superphone. This area stays visible for as long as you're on the home screen. Place a phone app icon in that area and you're never more than a swipe up and a tap away from making a call.

Okay, but how about ending a call or returning to the home screen?

Gesture to return to home screen

As much as I use my BlackBerry Smartphone, I'm a little surprised that the End/Home button hasn't worn out yet. I use that button all the time. If I'm listening to Pandora and want to jump back to the home screen to launch another app, I'm hitting that End button so fast I don't even think about. Without that button, how hard is it going to be to return to the home screen so I can experience some true multitasking goodness?

About as hard as flicking your thumb a centimeter into the screen. Again, the PlayBook gives us a clue about how this will be done. On the PlayBook, it's a very small gesture to return to the home screen; it's not like you have to drag your finger halfway across the screen. Starting outside the screen on the bezel (the border surrounding the screen), dragging a finger into the screen brings you back to the home screen. There, you can switch between apps or start a new application.

As for ending a call, I'm fairly certain there will be a button to tap in the phone application. After all, that's what you see in other full touchscreen devices that run iOS and the Android OS.

Menus and Options

Is this how menu options with work on BlackBerry 10

BlackBerry Smartphones are known for their options; I call this BlackBerry Choice.  With so many choices, quite a few options appear in the menu of most any application running on the device. The menu key also works as a sort of "I don't know what to do" button. If I can't figure out how to do something on my BlackBerry, I press the menu button. That's how I figured out how to add custom words to my dictionary.

RIM has already figured out a simplified menu system in the touchscreen devices of today. Tap and hold on the screen to get a few, most common menu choices. On every single one of these menus is the option to open the full menu.

Menus and options on the PlayBook are quite different. To access them, you swipe down from the top of the screen. If you're a two-handed device user, there's no problem with doing this on a phone. But single-handed use might be a bit of a problem for people without gigantic hands.

There's no way to be certain of this, but I imagine RIM's approach will be a hybrid of these two methods. Tap and hold to open a simplified menu, a second tap on the "Full Menu" button will open the drop-down menu from the top of the screen. The swipe down gesture would still work, but this full-menu method works well for single-handed use.

How do I go back?

Of all the keys absent from the BlackBerry 10 Smartphones, this is the one I'd miss the most. I've borrowed and played around with many friends' and family's smartphones and tablets. Whether that device is a Palm HP Pre or an iPad or an HTC Vivid, my first question is almost always: How do I go back? I can handle the singular button on the iPad; I love the card system on the Pre. But when I'm typing an email and then suddenly decide, "Meh, nevermind," how do I cancel changes and go back to the screen I was just on? On my BlackBerry, I just hit the back key and choose to discard changes.

I'm not certain how Research In Motion will handle this little conundrum. At first blush, it might seem logical to put a back button on every screen. Think about where that button would be in relation to your thumbs, though. Such a button would almost certainly be at the top of the screen while my thumbs are at the bottom. That doesn't seem to make a for a very easy one-handed use.

No, RIM will almost certainly have to conceive of a touchscreen gesture to make up for the lack of a back button. They've experimented with this before. When the Android app player for the PlayBook leaked, we discovered that RIM had added a bottom-to-side back gesture for backing up through the menus of that operating system. You had to start from an area in the bottom bezel and swipe through the screen to an area near the bottom of one of the side bezels.

In my experience, it did not work well, mainly because there didn't seem to be a lot of room for error. All too often, I found the gesture doing nothing at all because I did not swipe in exactly the right spot or opening the keyboard because I touched the bezel in the wrong space. 

RIM will have to put some thought and study into how to implement its back gestures. Removing this seemingly small button will have a great impact in how we use our Smartphones.

Some final thoughts

Using a BlackBerry Smartphone sans buttons will be a different experience from what we're all used to. Of course, using a new BlackBerry 10 Smartphone will be an entirely different experience in and of itself. Even being quite happy and experienced at rocking a full touchscreen device like the Torch 9860, I still have my worries about a button-less ‘Berry.

Setting aside my concerns about a back gesture, the disappearing trackpad doesn't exactly set my heart aflutter. I've mentioned before that my big ol' fingers make it difficult sometimes to select small items; I've even had trouble with it on the PlayBook. I'm not sure how easy it will be to use my large hands on a smaller-than-a-tablet Smartphone.

Still, full touchscreen devices are where the Smartphone market is headed, and that's where RIM needs to go. Removing the buttons is a Bold statement from the BlackBerry maker. It says, "Buttons? We don't need no stinkin' buttons." And it's true, we don't; but we might need a trackpad. Oh wouldn't it be wonderful if that BlackBerry logo at the bottom of the screen was really a touch-sensitive area in disguise? I doubt it; but we can hope. And we can dream...