The hard road to BlackBerry 10: BlackBerry's CEO on why he ignored advice to go Android

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins says the company could not have appealed to the "crazy multitaskers" it wants to target if it had moved to Android or Windows Phone.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Over the two years it's been working on BlackBerry 10, the company formerly known as RIM has been transforming itself.

BlackBerry Z10: designed for "crazy multitaskers".

BlackBerry has changed from being one of the most secretive technology companies, working to its own rhythm, to one that behaves more like a start-up, sharing its roadmap with developers and even dishing out thousands of free tablets and smartphones.

BlackBerry 10 — and the Z10 and Q10 handsets that run the OS — are vital to the future of BlackBerry, which has seen its market share consistently eroded thanks to the success of iOS and Android devices.

While the temptation must have been to consider switching to another operating system to win back users, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins said the company knew it had to build its own fresh OS to keep competitive.

"I took on this role not just because I know how to do restructuring but because I loved the core innovation in BlackBerry. We created this idea of mobile computing and we needed to create a new platform. It's not a downgraded PC operating system, it's not downsized — it is a platform that is fully newly created to enable this opportunity."

Switching to Microsoft or Google's operating system wouldn't cut it, according to the CEO. "I doubt we would have achieved the same thing just moving onto Android or onto Windows Phone — we would be just one of many trying to build a differentiated experience."

Despite being repeatedly told to consider other operating systems, Heins is convinced sticking with BlackBerry's own OS was the right path. "When I took over, I got a lot of advice to move to Android, it was all well-intentioned. But having the vision of mobile computing and knowing where we need to take this company, I am proud of what we have launched."

"I have a lot of respect for all other mobile platforms out there," he added. "Building BlackBerry 10 from the ground up and not on top of any other OS we could have chosen was a hard road, but we see now that there's a place for BlackBerry in the market."

Design inspiration

Key to reaching the "crazy multitaskers" that he's targeting with BlackBerry 10 is the platform's look and feel, according to Heins.

The company had to differentiate without abandoning the BlackBerry heritage, noted Todd Wood, senior vice president of design at BlackBerry. "Our opportunity as the design team was to build on the past but really think about what should we look like in the future," he says.

Design inspiration also came from classics like the Farnsworth House, a 1951 Mies van der Rohe building that Wood calls "the epitome of modern architecture and minimal design". The white lines of the Farnsworth house show up in early design sketches as well as in the lines of the onscreen keyboard.

But Wood doesn't really want you to notice them: he'd rather you were immersed in the experience and the phone was almost invisible.

"The industrial design does not fight with the view on the world. The UX of BlackBerry 10 becomes the stage, it becomes the performance — the cinematic experience," he said.

And that stage is one BlackBerry doesn't mind sharing. "We give developers every single pixel; we don't keep any for the status bar or navigation," added Don Lindsay, vice president of user experience design.

But how do you give developers the entire screen and still let users check their email? BlackBerry's solution was to develop an OS reliant on swipes and gestures, built around the concepts of Hub, Peek and Flow. By using a particular gesture, which started in the PlayBook interface, users can take a quick 'peek' at their message and update 'hub' without leaving the app they're in.

"We evolved the gesture through prototyping and testing," Lindsay said. "A swipe became a hook to get to the hub — and if I reverse the gesture I'm back where I came from. I can be in an app and look at another app, and go back without ever losing context."

The evolution of hardware

Hardware designs evolved in a similar way, starting with sketches and CAD modelling and quickly moving onto prototypes made on 3D printers, according to Wood.

"It has a 'fiddle factor'. You find yourself wanting to touch it." — Todd Wood, Senior VP Design, BlackBerry

"We went through hundreds, if not thousands, of prototypes for the Z10. You get a bunch of shapes and hold them in your hand, hold them up against your ear, put them in your pocket so you get a feel for the design. And you do that again and again until it's just right."

Similarly the texture on the back of the handset — a glass weave composite from the aviation industry with no carbon to interfere with radio signals — is designed so that it fades away slightly at the edges so give both grip and a sensual feel. "It has a 'fiddle factor'," said Wood. "You find yourself wanting to touch it."

Cleverly, the weave is on the bias — trick from tailoring, he added. "You put it on an angle so if you don't have it aligned in mass production it's not a problem, whereas if it was straight and the angle was off you'd see it at once."

For over a decade, BlackBerry has been synonymous with its keyboard. If the market wanted a touch device, it had to have the BlackBerry keyboard experience as well.

"We were never happy with touch typing — typing on glass was never satisfying on a competitor product or even our own," says Wood. He calls fixing that "a very good example of the hardware team working with the software team to be totally BlackBerry".

It had to be responsive, said keyboard designer Thad White: "We have labs with robotic fingers that have pressed this keyboard hundreds of thousands of times, with high-speed cameras measuring the latency of the touches."

It also looks familiar. "You recognise the design; it carries forward the BlackBerry heritage. It has the horizontal frets," but the keys are different: "We spent a lot of time testing with users to create the best shapes and sizes of keys."

The most unusual feature is next-word prediction — it's similar to the Windows Phone 8 word flow, but with a very different interface that overlays word suggestions on the keyboard itself.

"Many of us are fast typists," said White. "We use two thumbs banging away quickly on the keyboard; but at other times you have to type with one hand — when you're carrying a bag through the airport or holding a kid and the grocery bags. We try to present the predictions in a way that makes them easily accessible with one hand. As your eye is tracking to the next key, you want to hit the prediction right there."

However, beyond the intricacies of the design process is the reality of the market. BlackBerry has been bullish about the early sales of the new Z10, but with mighty rivals like the iPhone and the imminent Samsung S4 BlackBerry is well aware that elegant design is the start and not the end of the battle.

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