BlackBerry 10 is Good Enough to Save BlackBerry

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Let’s get this out of the way first: BlackBerry 10 is a slick operating system with novel and useful features Apple, Google, and Microsoft will undoubtedly steal.

BlackBerry Z10 hands onThe BlackBerry Z10 is a top-of-the-line smartphone with impressive hardware and specs that match up to any rival device.

The BlackBerry Q10 is a BlackBerry user’s dream come true, as it combines the traditional BlackBerry Bold design and full physical QWERTY keyboard with BlackBerry 10 and a large (for a Bold anyway) touchscreen.

Are these three elements enough to lift the company formerly known as RIM, now known simply as BlackBerry, from its years-long slump in the mobile market? At a glance, and based on hands-on time at the New York event where CEO Thorsten Heins officially unveiled the trio, yes. BlackBerry 10, the Z10, and Q10, are certainly not too little an effort. The question really is, are they too late?

The Good

It seems BlackBerry designed BlackBerry 10 with one-handed operation in mind. Just like the BlackBerry PlayBook OS, which is strikingly similar, BlackBerry 10 is all swipe based, with no buttons or softkeys to guide operation. A swipe from the bottom brings users back to the home screen from an app, with a nifty row of status indicators for emails, tweets, and other messages resting on the left, and a swipe from the top brings down user settings. From the home screen, where user-selected live tiles reside (which are actually just recently-used apps), a swipe from the left bring up BlackBerry Hub for a quick glance at new notifications, while a swipe to the right takes users to all apps.

It’s in those user settings that BlackBerry stashed perhaps its most innovative feature, and that is separate work and home user accounts. Users can switch on-the-fly between work mode and home mode, where applications, settings, and permissions adjust accordingly.

BlackBerry Q10 hands onBlackBerry made its name as a maker of enterprise-class devices, complete with back-end controls for IT departments to manage and monitor devices. With this new work/play account setting, BlackBerry is not only embracing its core customers, but also acknowledging the reality of consumerization and BYOD.

The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet was unsuccessfully marketed as a device for work and play, in part because there was no clear line for users and it was seen as tweener. Two years later, with BYOD now the norm, this is no longer a concern. All devices are tweeners, and with BlackBerry 10, both users and enterprises could effectively have more control over the apps and permissions that matter most to each.

Also good for the enterprise is screen sharing over BBM, the BlackBerry instant message application. Samsung and others offer screen sharing over Wi-Fi direct and other close-quarters connections, but BBM users can do it over a simple IM chat from miles and miles away. Of course, this is huge for enterprise users on collaboration efforts and presentations, but also for IT departments and help desks.

Finally, the new BlackBerry 10 has native image and video editing, as well as some excellent camera features. Yes, BlackBerry now has a cool camera! The time-shift feature, in which users snap a pic, and then select the best possible photo from the seconds before the picture was taken, including the best face via facial recognition, is another idea Apple, Google, and Microsoft might soon steal — or at least should think about it.

BlackBerry also made improvements to the keyboard, and showed off its impressive word prediction capabilities, and ported over the robust contacts app from the PlayBook, which organizes all contacts, including social media “friends” into one silo. What’s really cool is that the keyboard prediction software can learn names from the contacts app, in addition to commonly typed words.

The Pitfalls

No operating system resides in a vacuum, and BlackBerry 10 will only be as good as its app catalog. To BlackBerry’s credit, reps made a point to claim that BB10 has the most apps of any first-generation ecosystem, with more than 70,000 ready to go in BlackBerry World. For what’s it’s worth, Microsoft made the same claim last November at the Windows RT launch.

There are some big names included in that total. Skype, Kindle, WhatsApp, Rdio, Dropbox, ooVoo, ESPN, SAP, Cisco, Electronic Arts, Rovio are on board, though BlackBerry wouldn’t comment on whether these apps will be available immediately. Others, like Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, and LinkedIn are integrated into BB10, and that is evident from the contacts app described above.

BlackBerry CEO Thornsten HeinsThere is no mention of Netflix, or Instagram, or Words with Friends, or Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime Streaming, or Flipboard, or many other popular apps. Those looking for a flick fix can get it through BlackBerry World, which is now populated with apps, movies, and music for download. Movie rentals cost $3 to $4, and purchases range from $10 to $20, which is competitive with iTunes.

Carriers?

The carriers will also play a crucial role in BB10 adoption. All the major carriers have committed to supporting the platform, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, with Verizon getting the first shot. It will offer the Z10 in March for $199 with a contract, though the device will be shipping worldwide with immediate availability in the UK. The Q10 is scheduled to ship “Aprilish” according to BlackBerry reps.

So here it is, BlackBerry’s last great hope. It will undoubtedly be a darling for BlackBerry holdouts, and it may even win back some disaffected iOS and Android users. If it fails, it won’t be because BlackBerry didn’t try. It will be because the market just can’t support four major operating systems, with Android and iOS are already entrenched, and Windows Phone 8 slowly elbowing its way in.

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