RIM shows off upcoming BlackBerry 6

The upcoming update to the BlackBerry OS has a completely redesigned home screen, on-screen integration with social networks and a new menu structure

Research in Motion has unveiled the new features in BlackBerry 6, saying the update to the BlackBerry operating system will arrive in the next quarter.

The new OS — described by Research in Motion (RIM) co-chief Mike Lazaridis in a keynote speech as "the biggest step forward" for the BlackBerry experience — was shown on Tuesday to an audience of BlackBerry partners, developers and users at the company's Wireless Enterprise Symposium in Orlando, Florida.

BlackBerry 6 is designed to work with current and future RIM hardware, and will take advantage of mobile GPUs, according to the company. Key new features include an improved visual design with crisper graphics and a new home screen.

"We have completely redesigned the home screen," Lazaridis told ZDNet UK. "You can search from the home screen for information on the device and the internet. We've redesigned all the core applications: messages, calendar, contacts — and we have great new multimedia apps and a new application for managing and viewing social networks."

One of the biggest changes is a new menu structure. "People like the way [BlackBerry] multitasks; we didn't want to lose that," Lazaridis noted.

The new OS will make news feeds and social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace part of the BlackBerry platform, with icons appearing in on-screen menus. In addition, third-party applications will be able to run on BlackBerry 6.

There will also be compatibility with existing applications, according to David Yach, chief technology office for software at RIM. "Older applications are running well, and we're being very careful with BlackBerry 6's compatability. If an application uses RIM's UI capabilities, it will inherit the platform's new capabilities," he said.

The new OS will also see the arrival of RIM's much-anticipated tabbed WebKit-based browser, which will replace the now-outmoded BlackBerry Browser. Yach pointed out that this will also give BlackBerry's widget platform new capabilities, with a faster JavaScript engine.

"We're starting to see a cleverer OS optimised for more symbiosis between applications," said International Data Corporation (IDC) research director Nick McQuire, who cautioned that the known details of the OS are still very limited. "They're pushing not just email but content now as part of the platform."

A video released by RIM shows a touch-friendly OS that allows people to use swipes and other gestures to navigate between screens and applications. It also demonstrated a new core messaging application with a clean, unified inbox and easy-to-read details of recent voice and email messages. Richer HTML email — again using WebKit — and pop-up contextual menus link applications together.

"It is a vastly improved visual experience for the BlackBerry," said IDC's McQuire. "If you could level a criticism of BlackBerry in the past, it's that they say they're on two-year developer cycles, and the products you see today were built two years ago. The Apples and Googles of this world have come in with more recent products, so it looks slightly dated."

Lazaridis told ZDNet UK that the new OS was the result of talking to customers about their experiences with the existing interface. He described the process as "like a spring cleaning — you can change things, improve things, fix what needs to be fixed".

BlackBerry 6 will arrive on new handsets and also be ported to older hardware capable of providing a good user experience, Yach said. "We introduced OS 5.0 with new handsets, then provided it for older products. BlackBerry 6 will follow the same pattern," he said.