Hands on with the Blackberry 10 that is coming early next year (Febuary 2013)

Posted on September 9, 2012

Last week I was invited to attend a Blackberry function for a “key few” top clients in the country. I accepted reluctantly as others from my employer couldn’t make the event. I guess I had written off Blackberry and on the day of the event our organisation announced that employees for the first time had the choice of getting iPhone’s or Galaxy SIII’s instead of Blackberries.

I have been using a Blackberry for almost as far back as I can remember, for probably the last 10 years at least. The first was a rather clunky device with a physical scroll wheel on the side, a version 7200 or something like that. Since then I have been through many versions, from the diminutive phone-like Pearl through two version of the Bold (9000 and 9900) with an 8520 for a 4 month period in-between the last two.

Blackberry has always served me well when it came to “business” functions like email, contacts and calendar. Over the last 3 years it has also significantly improved in the “social” area as BBM took off like wildfire to replace the increasingly unstable MXIT and as Twitter and Facebook were integrated. Even as I have carried an iPad and various Nokia and Windows phones the Blackberry was still my favourite twitter client as it worked so much better in low signal and erratic signal areas.

In the last 6 months Blackberry has been in a lot of trouble per the global press. The devices were no longer cool, the network had it’s fair share of problems, the Blackberry 10 was delayed. The Playbook tablet was released prematurely with buggy feature deprived software, and looked clunky in comparison to the iPad and Galaxy tablets.

On the way to the event I even tweeted out to my few hundred followers that I was going to this event, using what I though would be my last Blackberry.

The event was at the DaVinci in Sandton. Nice venue. It was in the evening and started a little late. A simple affair, some cocktail tables set up in a room with food and drinks being served. The event started a little late as the key guests were delayed at their previous engagement. The opportunity was taken to catch up with some old acquaintances and make a few more. The mood was a little downbeat with people just wanting to get home.

The entourage arrived. The global executive team. Thorsten Heins (President and CEO), Frank Boulben (Chief Marketing Officer), Carlo Chiarello (Executive Vice President), supported by the South African team, including newly appointed Southern Africa CEO Alexandra Zagury.

Frank came across to our table, introduced himself, pulled a Blackberry 10 all touch device out of his pocket and without much fanfare proceeded to give us a very hands on half hour demo of the device and what it can do. This was so much more effective than any Powerpoint video or presentation and was a masterstroke.

The power of the QNX underpinnings were immediately apparent, and pretty quickly I was thinking wow, I would actually want one of these things. It’s powerful, stable, and has so much potential. Yes, it was still a little rough around the edges, and there was the occasional glitch as an application terminated, but the OS was rock solid, didn’t need any restarts, no slowdowns, just worked and well.

A number of key thoughts, observations and takeaways are bulleted below :

  • Blackberry 10 devices will be launched in Q1 of 2013
    • South Africa is a priority 1 market, on the “A List”
    • We will be part of the first release
    • 6 Devices will be launched in the first quarter
  • The full touch device will come first (networks want this one first)
    • It is light but sturdy, comfortable to hold, designed for one-handed use
    • It is a bit longer than the Bold 9900, has a lip at top and bottom of the screen
    • Better screen resolution than the new iPhone 5
    • 8 Megapixel camera
  • The high-end keyboard device will come around 60 days after the full touch
    • The keyboard is about the same size as the current keyboard
    • The row of keys with the blackberry button and answer keys will be soft keys as part of the display, giving the screen more space
    • the device will be a bit longer than the current Bold 9900, same width
  • Mid range devices will come within 3 months (around May/June 2013)
    • These will have similar spec’s to the above devices eg. screen resolution
    • Will have to be downscaled to save costs and allow them to be sold in that mid range pricing

I got to see and hold, touch and play with both of the high-end devices. Both were a pleasure to use, although the software had clearly at this stage been better optimised for the all touch device (Frank did make this clear to us). Having used both I would choose the all touch device even though I love my Bold 9900 keyboard (as I did the 9000 before). The software keyboard isn’t just another software keyboard, RIM has made some efforts to give it usability beyond what is available on competing Android and iPhone devices. Some notes :

  • The software keyboard works only in vertical mode as it is designed for one-handed use
  • The software uses “hot touch” techniques to identify where you naturally touch the keys and adjust accordingly, so if you always touch a certain key a little close to the key next door, it will identify and compensate for this
  • The keyboard has smart predictive text, that is application aware, so won’t try to mess up your abbreviations and contractions in SMS or BBM, but will help you write better English (or French) in emails.
  • Predictive text analyses your writing style to help better figure out what words you use frequently and in which order to help figure out what the next word will be, it then “attaches” these to the keys on the keyboard, so when you look at the next letter you want to press, and see the word you want, you just flick it up onto the screen with a gesture, don’t see the word just keep typing until you see it or are finished the word.
  • The keyboard uses context to determine language so you don’t have to manually switch languages if you choose to write something in another language
  • Overall it was pleasant to use and looks really slick
The operating system itself (Blackberry 10) has some nice features
  • OS partitioning to provide you with work and personal partitions on the same device, to save you carrying two devices. One can be controlled by the employer (and wiped at their discretion), with no data copied between the two, while the user can then have all their social media, games and own apps installed in the other, separated down at the kernel level
  • Switching between the two is easy, and quick. Pull down the tab from the top of the screen and choose the virtual device you want, and it switches instantly. No noticeable delays at all
  • The integrated inbox takes centre stage and is available at all times.
  • If you are working in an application and the red light comes on (message notification), a simple gesture lets you sneak a peak at what kind of notification it is, and if you want more just continue with the swipe to get to the unified inbox
  • Then you can read, reply to and manage whatever message it might be
    • You get to customise this inbox, want just mail, put it there, add your SMS, BBM, Linked In, whatever else you want at your discretion
  • Done with your inbox, just swipe back to your application and carry on where you left off, pretty cool
  • Social media integration
    • Social media is integrated everywhere, in a good way
    • Attending a meeting, you can see pictures of the attendees (from LinkedIn or others), read up on them, see what they have been up to, what your recent communications with them has been. Great to keep in control of contacts and have those quick reminders
    • Full Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn integration
    • No Skype yet
  • BBM 10
    • Video Chat (using a front facing camera)
    • Ability to share your screen with someone you are chatting with, and you control it, choose what they can see and what they can copy, is very cool
  • Multimedia and Camera
    • Quality seems pretty good for an 8 megapixel camera
    • There were hints of some interesting but as yet unannounced camera partnerships to provide a really good quality optics and software in the final release
    • The device can do all you need for music and video (no specifics provided), including link up to and stream directly to DLNA enabled devices (TV’s, amplifiers etc)
  • The device can run native OS 10 applications (written in C++) as well as Android based applications (submitted to the Blackberry store by the developers)
    • They wouldn’t say which version of Android applications is supported, but did say that around 70% of applications would work
    • Those apps which use custom hardware features or make use of Google App integration (such as Google Maps) won’t work
  • Enterprise control
    • BES is an integral part of mobile strategy for any organisation using Blackberries, nothing else works well to control the devices
    • Organisations are increasingly using an integrated multi-device strategy (mine is no different) so potentially multiple platforms for controlling these is required. Blackberry Fusion was supposed to help on this front, but wasn’t a great platform (my view)
    • Blackberry Enterprise Server 10 is coming (before the middle of the year), this will be a vastly improved (their words) more integrated solution not requiring you to run so many components as Blackberry Fusion. This will help increase control and reduce complexity
I came away from the event pretty excited that Blackberry still has a future in the country. Thorsten went out of his way to assure all of us that RIM has no debt, they have completed a lot of their restructuring to make RIM lean and mean again, and with over $2 Billion in the bank they are ready to move forward into a Blackberry 10 world where the mobile computing platform is about much more than just phones. QNX is at the core of BB 10 and already runs in 70% of cars on-board computers, so expect some amazing stuff going forward.
If I could have walked away from the event with one of the all touch Blackberry 10 devices, I would have done so a happy man. We still have 4-5 months to wait before they are available. That is a long time. iPhone 5 has been released and by all accounts is an amazing device even if it only takes Apple to the next level without changing the world (although with the comments on the new Maps application perhaps there is a step backwards too). Galaxy S III is here too and IV rumoured (and denied) to be released in the same time frames as the BB 10.
Still, despite all, I came away from the event with much renewed optimism that Blackberry has a future, both in enterprise and particularly in South Africa. I had been telling my family and friends to get used to the idea of moving off the Blackberry platform, now the picture is a little different. Those renewing contracts now have a tough choice, 6 months is a long wait especially if the current device is not working so well. Their love for BBM and tie into the eco-systems with friends using it makes it tougher. The suggestion is to upgrade the firmware, take a month to month contract and hang in there if you can, otherwise make the switch, get that iPhone or Galaxy, but be fully aware of the pro’s and con’s of doing so.
Me, I carry two phones and will continue to do so. The Bold 9900 is only due for renewal in late 2013, although I hope to get onto a pilot program and get one of these new Blackberry 10’s in February when they come out. Still need to figure out how to wangle that one, but is worth the try. My second device is currently a Nokia Lumia 800 (I had a 900 for a few days but gave it back and kept the 800), which is an ok phone, and fine as a second device. I would probably swap it out for an iPhone or Galaxy given a chance but am reasonably happy with it, especially like the Nokia Music and Maps applications – that though should really be the subject of another post.

Thanks to RIM South Africa for the invite to what was a very promising and enlightening event. Thanks also to the executives from RIM who made the trip across to South Africa to show their commitment to us as their customers and to South Africa as a key market. I loved the hands on and personal approach you took to the event, and you certainly turned me around in my view on the future of Blackberry in South Africa. Goodluck in retaining and regaining some of that market share here and across the world.

While checking on some information above I came across this Interview with Thorsten Heins by Arthur Goldstuck (link here). All of what I have written above is from memory, no notes. Read the interview for more specific quotable information.


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Categories: Gadgets, Johannesburg, Mobile, Wireless

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