Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
TORONTO: The wait is over. BlackBerry 10 is here and we now have four competing platforms in the mobile marketplace. With BlackBerry 10, the newly renamed BlackBerry (or, the company formerly known as RIM) is aiming for third place behind the more popular Android and iOS devices and ecosystems. Here's what they showed off at their product launch.
I was at the Toronto launch event of BlackBerry 10 where the excitement and anticipation was palpable. This was RIM's big comeback, a long awaited last-ditch effort to make a serious bid for the smartphone market where it was once the leader.
Speaking with media colleagues and some analysts, it was clear that the launch was generally met with enthusiasm and a touch of sober caution. Would the announcements be significant enough to make up for years of lost momentum?
There were certainly a number of things to focus on. New hardware, later revealed to be the Z10 and Q10 handsets, was front and centre.
The Z10, which comes to Canada on February 5, has many of the qualities that will attract today's savvy smartphone users.
An attractive 4.2" multi-touch display, a solid yet muted new industrial design, a slick new operating system that's made to flow smoothly between work and personal use, and a digital camera that shoots various photos in burst mode to increase the chances of catching the perfect photo.
These, plus all the tasty must haves in a top tier device, including NFC (Near Field Communications) for mobile payments, an app store and an ecosystem of accessories available from day one.
The BlackBerry Hub feature acts as a central repository for all the tweets, tags, pokes, emails, text messages users receive throughout the day. It is the most clutter-free notifications hub in any smartphone OS today.
It is an elegant solution that works in the background and can be accessed at any time with a simple gesture. This is the sort of integration you expect from a company of BlackBerry's pedigree, specially an innovator in messaging, mail and communications.
BB10'a new software keyboard is pure BlackBerry innovation. Not only is it uncannily responsive to type on, the learning-aware predictive text feature literally floats possible words based on context and spelling.
Simply swipe up on any of those words and they fly up into the message you're typing. I've used my BlackBerry Z10's keyboard for just half a day and it simply blows away any other smartphone typing experience out there right now in terms of intuitiveness.
Other standout features include BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) now with video calling similar to iOS's FaceTime plus a unique screen-sharing feature that lets users project their desktop and whatever is on it on another BlackBerry.
BlackBerry Remember is another useful feature that is a place for users to keep on top of all their files, tasks and notes – and the best part it is integrated right into the BlackBerry Hub. You can flag messages, assign due dates, take voice notes, add attachments, and pull in contacts. It also integrates with your Evernote account to bring all your notes into one simple BlackBerry Remember app.
The Browser has also been updated significantly and is on par with many competing devices. BlackBerry's version has a great feature called Reader that effortlessly strips out images and formatting for an easier to read, text-only experience.
There's a lot more to discover in terms of the OS and the device's features. My initial take based on a few hours of use is that BB10 is a well-realized OS and feels a lot more cohesive as new mobile OS than Windows Phone 7 did when it launched over a year ago.
The apps have been promised but many of the big ones aren't available yet (ironically, the best ones like Twitter, Facebook. LinkedIN and Foursquare are already pre loaded, how nice.) BlackBerry promises 70,000 apps and the BlackBerry World does have a seemingly endless selection of apps but few will be familiar to users of other mobile platforms.
The Q10, which will not be coming to market until later this year, feels like a nostalgic product.
Sort of the way Volkswagen keeps rehashing the New Beetle or how the new Mini Coopers today have many identifiable elements of the original, but with all-new parts and features.
The Q10 is really the new BlackBerry Bold with a new and improved tactile QWERTY keyboard as well as a a 3.1" multi-touch screen.
"We heard you loud and clear, here it is!" Heins said as he raised up the Q10 which was designed for the all the holdouts still sporting older BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard devices.
While the Z10 is impressive and will likely pry newer some users away from their iPhones and Galaxy SIII's, I think the familiarity and look and feel of the Q10 is what is going to keep BlackBerry in the game for the long haul.
While there have been some attempts to fill the void of a modern QWERTY keyboard-enabled smartphone, the Q10 has no viable competitor and it will likely suck in all the loyal users who have long been desperate for a kickass BlackBerry smartphone with a keyboard. This is the one they have been waiting for.
Reactions to the Launch
The BlackBerry 10 launch was really everything most of us expected it to be. But there were no big surprises.
Today's mobile market is so intensely competitive and so far thrust into mainstream media, that various leaks and images of these smartphones have been going around for months.
Many of the software features and hardware specs were also leaked by Asian suppliers and blogs and even demoed in various RIM events. Not one of the feature announcements yesterday jumped out as a real slam dunk surprise, but they were collectively impressive for a brand spanking new OS.
There were no onstage endorsements from App partners. No showing off of the Z10's graphics capabilities, its gaming potential or even any BlackBerry exclusive third-party applications which have long been components of BlackBerry keynotes.
Thorsten Heins did introduce soul-diva Alicia Keys (above) as RIM's new brand ambassador of sorts. While it isn't uncommon for technology companies to hitch their star to celebrity endorsers, the timing and importance given to the new "Global Creative Director" seemed out of context at that particular point in the keynote.
BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins stressed time and again during his keynote, that the launch of BlackBerry 10 was not the finish line, but only the beginning. While this may be so, BlackBerry now has to do its best to grow BB10 and stay competitive. And yes, it has to move quickly. “The future is still hard work," Heins addressed BlackBerry's 12,000 employees during the keynote.
With these devices and with a solid new operating system, BlackBerry clearly has a future. Albeit, one whose direction is clearer than it has been in a long time. Now its up to the market to decide BlackBerry 10's place in the industry.