Research In Motion (RIM) has been slow to revamp its BlackBerry handsets to measure up to the competition and keep up with developers' needs. However, the new BlackBerry 10 operating system is just around the corner; has the company done enough of an overhaul to revive consumer interest in its smartphones?
The new platform harmonises RIM's operating system strategy for its smartphones and tablets, allowing both to run on the same software — the same approach taken by Google with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
To get an idea of what can be expected from BlackBerry 10 when it arrives later this year, ZDNet UK got some hands-on time with a dev handset running the software.
The demo session used a pre-beta build of the software. It focused on three key areas of the OS: the new virtual keyboard, the completely revamped notification system, and the new home-screen UI.
A keyboard with smarts
One new feature that could bring BlackBerry 10 handsets up to speed with smartphone rivals is a new virtual keyboard with a nifty word-prediction system that gets smarter the more you use it.
In order to make the system more accurate, it scans emails and messages to learn the way in which you talk and to see which words are most often used. Start typing, and the keyboard will pop up predictions for the current and next words. If the suggested word is correct, you simply swipe up across the keyboard.
Using the system felt very natural and quick in testing. As it promises to provide more accurate predictions over time, it's a very worthwhile addition to the platform.
Vivek Bhardwaj, head of RIM's software portfolio team, assured ZDNet UK that all fluency data crunching is done on the device and is based on pattern recognition, rather than sending data off to remote servers for analysis, thereby avoiding obvious privacy concerns.
RIM reportedly doesn't plan to include a hardware keyboard in the first device running BlackBerry 10, expected later this year. Despite this, it is keeping true to QWERTY-loving fans and has promised to eventually deliver the OS on devices that do include physical keyboards.
Swiping down on the keypad at any time brings up numbers and symbols, and swiping up again returns you to the letters. Swiping left at any point deletes the word on screen (pictured).
If typing on a touchscreen usually poses a challenge because you don't hit the letters square on, then RIM has accounted for that. Over time, it recognises where an individual user tends to hit each key — slightly to the left or right, for example — and adjusts to ensure that the intended keystroke is entered, via an unseen virtual keyboard behind the one on screen. This "almost second keyboard" will make mis-hit keys a thing of the past, Bhardwaj said.
No place like home
The new-look start screen that greets you when you switch on a BlackBerry 10 handset will be very familiar, as it looks like a cross between the Android and Windows Phone displays.
It's no surprise that the user interface has had a radical overhaul, as RIM snapped up UI specialist The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) for that technology in 2010. Since the takeover, TAT has concentrated on RIM's tablet-focused PlayBook OS and BlackBerry 10, Bhardwaj confirmed to ZDNet UK.
The default home screen (pictured) is used to show the last and most used apps, and constantly updates the most recently used in the top left-hand corner of the display. The tiles themselves are larger than mere icons and are similar to Windows Phone Mango's live tiles.
Scrolling to the left of the start screen brings up a list of apps (pictured), which looks like the lists seen on Windows Phone, Android and iOS.
A persistent bar at the bottom of the display provides quick access to search, calling and camera functions.
Although the screens were only running on demo hardware, response was good, with movement between the screens feeling natural and mostly intuitive.
Persistence is key
One of the other major changes in BlackBerry 10 is the removal of any kind of messaging icons. (You may have wondered why the persistent bar at the bottom of the home screen does not have links to messaging features and email.)
Instead, RIM has made emailing and messaging persistently accessible in a notifications display (pictured) to the right of the home screen, so as not to distract the user from what they were already doing. This side bar also displays social-networking updates from sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Bhardwaj said developers will be able to put alerts in the notifications bar through use of an API.
Selecting any of the notification icons will take you to the relevant app. BlackBerry 10 nests opened messages — as in the email example pictured — to allow people to see the message without leaving the inbox.
Likewise, selecting an attachment from an email will open the attachment in the same nested manner, so that the message and the email inbox are still close to hand.