It's not easy for a company to reinvent itself, especially after digging itself deep into a hole of denial that the industry has changed. But BlackBerry, the company formerly known as Research in Motion, has made the reinvention, resurrecting the all-but-dead BlackBerry platform in its new BlackBerry 10 OS and the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone that runs it. Now shipping in the United States, the BlackBerry Z10 is a good smartphone, one worthy of consideration for both personal and business use. It's not perfect, but it's a legitimate option.
The BlackBerry 10 OS poses no real threat to Apple's iOS or Google's Android, which are both more sophisticated and more capable. It's Microsoft that should worry about BlackBerry 10, both because Windows Phone 8 pales in comparison and because BlackBerry 10 echoes many of the familiar messaging capabilities that will appeal to old-school BlackBerry users who have so far resisted iOS and Android. If any of the eight mobile OSes vying to compete with Android and iOS deserve to succeed, it's BlackBerry.
The sharp BlackBerry Z10
The Z10 is a slick smartphone, made of textured plastic that is comfortable to hold and Apple-like in its simple design. The 4.2-inch screen is sharp, though middle of the pack in size, larger than an iPhone's and smaller than the popular Samsung Galaxy devices running Android.
Although BlackBerry promotes the device as perfect for one-handed thumb-centric use, the truth is the screen is too large for most people's hands to reach the top; plus, I found that thumb taps were often ignored by the touchscreen. The culprit seems to be angle: The screen is quite good at detecting direct, straight-down taps such as from our index finger when holding the device with one hand and tapping with the other. Directly down thumb taps are also registered, but those that come in at 45-degree or shallower angles often are not.
The hardware specs are comparable to those of other quality smartphones, though the mono speaker is a bit "breathy" and flat compared to the iPhone 5's. The battery is replaceable, which is important given the so-so battery life; you'll get a workday's use, as with most Android smartphones, but not the two-day life typical of an iPhone. You can add an SD card for increased storage beyond the 11.4GB of available capacity on the device, such as to store media files.
Overall, the BlackBerry Z10 is a solid smartphone in line with its competition. The other new model, the BlackBerry Bold-like Q10, isn't yet available, so I could not test it.
AT&T and T-Mobile are now taking orders for the Z10. AT&T is charging $200 with a two-year contract and expects release on March 22. T-Mobile is charging $250 and expects release by April 1. Verizon Wireless also plans to sell the Z10 for $200 with a two-year contract, but is not yet taking orders and has not set a release date. The Z10 has been available in the United Kingdom and Canada for several weeks.
Welcome to the Hub -- and mixed messaging capabilities
For some time now, RIM -- I mean BlackBerry -- has been trying to act young and hip, even though its core market has long been 50-year-old execs like me.
In addition to the now de rigeur media store, BlackBerry has followed the messaging centrism that Microsoft debuted in the terrible Kin a few years back, then successfully re-debuted in Windows Phone's People app. The Hub lists all your messages and updates in one big list.
It's great for seeing what's new, but I found the list quickly grows overwhelming -- and I set up just my two main email accounts, my Twitter feed, and my appointments. But you can narrow down to one stream by tapping the top of the Hub and selecting the account you want to focus on. Tap there again and select the Hub to go back to the view of everything. All in all, the Hub concept works quite well, and if you're primarily a messaging or reactive email user, it's perfect.
For email, the Hub works like the traditional BlackBerry email app (in fact, BlackBerry 10 has no separate email app). If you like how the BlackBerry has historically handled email, BlackBerry 10 will be comfortingly familiar. I dislike it: Seeing my replies mixed up in my messages confuses me as to what each message is and clutters what I perceive as my inbox. Fortunately, as in the old BlackBerry, you can turn off that reply display via a preference setting.
The folder navigation for email is very clunky, requiring a trip to the Hub's account list. When you file a message from the mail list into a folder, you're often moved to the folder with the message open, so quickly filing messages for later is not at all quick, as it is in iOS and Android. Sometimes, filing a message worked as expected, keeping me in the email list; go figure. Also, messages filed to folders on other devices or computers -- common for those of us who move among a tablet, computer, and smartphone throughout the day -- don't get marked as such in BlackBerry 10, unlike iOS or Android.
To act on a message, tap and hold it (a long-tap, in Android parlance) to have a contextual menu slide in from the side, then tap the icon for the desired action, such as copy or delete. When in a message, use the More menu (the sideways ellipsis icon) to display those options. It's similar to how Android works.
The Hub's email "app" is adequate, but not as easy to use as iOS's and a little less easy than Android's.
The BlackBerry's text-entry blues
Given the BlackBerry 10 OS's messaging focus, I was frustrated by its sometimes-painful text entry and text editing.
The good news is that the onscreen keyboard is nice and clear, and I appreciate the numerals row at the top -- you even get a standard keyboard's symbols when you tap the Shift key. The ability to swipe the Delete key to delete the word to the left of the cursor is also a nice convenience.
In the initial release of the BlackBerry 10 OS, text selection was very difficult, both to move your cursor and to select a range of text. The text cursor is very faint when trying to position the cursor, and it can be hard to exit that cursor-movement mode. Since then, an OS update has added an iOS-like focal circle (without the magnification) to help you locate the cursor, and selection and cursor movement are now more precise. To select text usually requires double-tapping it, but often you get the cursor instead. Extending the selection range by dragging the selection handles doesn't always work smoothly.
Although you can adjust the size of text in the overall UI, you cannot do so in emails, and the text size is barely legible for many people. Perhaps the reason for the tiny text is BlackBerry's desire to seem young. Tiny text is a hallmark of 20-year-old programmers, who don't understand that much of the world doesn't see as well as they do (and don't care enough to let you change the default size). Keep your reading glasses handy.
I was also frustrated when composing emails. If you have multiple email accounts, you always have to choose one before composing the message, even when you're working in a particular account. Other OSes assume it's the account whose emails you are reading or let you set the default account. As in other mobile OSes, the BlackBerry 10 OS lets you change the From account before sending an email -- as long as you swipe up at the top of the message to reveal the menu for doing so. It's not as intuitive as in iOS or Android.
At the first release, the contacts lookup when addressing emails was often very slow, and after you type part of a person's name to initiate a lookup in your contacts list, the BlackBerry 10 OS often left the partial entry you typed for you to delete. The current OS version fixes those issues.
But I experienced more text-entry blues. As you type, suggested words pop up on the onscreen keyboard in tiny, virtually impossible-to-read small text, by default above the letter it thinks you may have meant to tap in the current word. (You can turn off this suggested text or have it appear above the spacebar instead.) The ability to swipe these suggestions into your text is no less work than tapping the suggestion; the much-ballyhooed swipe-up suggestions seems like a gimmick created merely for demos.
The main suggestion appears in a large blue box that is easy to read -- but it's smack on top of the spacebar, hiding that character and preventing you from ending the current word if you don't want to accept the suggestion. I had to tap a punctuation character, then backspace to delete it, then type the spacebar.
The onscreen keyboard is not smart enough to provide special symbols such as @ and _ when entering URLs and email addresses. (Sometimes, @ was available.) There is no .com button.
Finally, the method to apply formatting to text in emails is unintuitive. Every time I tapped the Format button at the bottom of the screen, I got the onscreen keyboard instead. What you have to do is hide the keyboard (by tapping and holding the spacebar), tap the More button, tap Format in the contextual menu that appears, then tap the Format icon at the bottom of the screen to display the formatting bar. Crazy! After that, the Format button is active at the bottom of the screen, when the keyboard is hidden, so you don't have to reenable it in the contextual menu. This seems to be a Hub flaw; in Documents to Go, I could use the contextual menu for selected text to enable formatting.
But the dictation feature -- accessed by tapping and holding the period on the onscreen keyboard -- is exemplary, with voice recognition quality a bit better than both Apple's and Google's. Well, exemplary if I'm not the one speaking: BlackBerry mangles my speech as badly as Apple and Google do, though it did great with other testers' speech. As with those two competitors, you need a live Internet connection so that the BlackBerry can send your speech to the company's servers for transcription, then send back to you.
Go with the Peek and Flow
I like the Peek UI's ability to slide in from the right when reading a message to see the full Hub list, then either open the Hub or close it and return to my message. It's fast and easy. The Peek interface is also useful in apps, where you can peek at the available documents or images.
The simple Flow interface for shuffling among apps is also nice. You quickly learn you can move from the Hub to your running apps' tiles to your app icons and back with simple swipes, and the gesture becomes second nature fast. Despite what the folks at BlackBerry claim, it's not really easier than iOS's multitasking dock or Android's running-apps windowlet. Closing an app (the app still runs in the background) and getting to the running apps' tiles by swiping up from the bottom of the screen is also no easier than tapping a home button.
In some cases, it is slower. That's because when you close an app, you are presented with a screen of tiles of running apps; you have to then swipe to the right to see the various app screens if the app you want is not running. iOS's home button speeds up the process, though it's not as fast as Android's quick access to airplane mode via the notification tray.
BlackBerry did find a different app-switching approach in the WebOS-like Flow compared to what iOS and Android do. It is generally well-executed, but it provides no competitive advantage. Still the BlackBerry 10 OS user interface is easy to learn and overall is both efficient and straightforward.
Security for more users than before
A very welcome change to BlackBerry OS is its support of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies such as requiring encryption and passwords. The previous BlackBerry OS protected devices only if a company invested in the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). By contrast, both iOS and Android support EAS out of the box, with further security capabilities available, especially for iOS, if your company uses a mobile device management (MDM) server. The BlackBerry 10 OS now can be used in EAS-secured environments, not just those that buy BES.
I was displeased that the BlackBerry 10 OS doesn't automatically encrypt the device. Like Android, it has to be turned on manually and takes about 45 minutes. But as long as you're using an EAS account that requires it, the BlackBerry 10 OS's encryption can't be turned off by the user. BlackBerry 10 connects easily to VPNs, like iOS. It's compatible with Cisco IPSec VPNs, unlike most Android devices (recent Samsung Android devices support such VPNs as well).
BlackBerry has touted its Balance technology that lets you set up separate business and personal environments on the smartphone, which you can easily switch between and still have a unified view of in the Hub. Balance requires BES 10, so you need that new mobile device management (MDM) tool to use it. Balance works well once installed, using policies set by IT to separate personal data and apps from work ones. Policies can be loose, allowing both personal and business access to email, contacts, and/or calendars, or strict, keeping them strictly separate.
Switching between the two workspaces is easy, though you have to go to the apps grid view first. Once you see a grid of apps (swipe to the right until you see it), place your finger in the center of the screen and swipe down. Two buttons appear at the top of the screen: Personal and Work. Tap the button for the workspace you want. Your workspace will show the apps available to it. For common services such as calendar and contacts, you'll see just the personal or work accounts, assuming IT has set up that division.
BlackBerry 10 has no email app -- that's what the Hub is for. When Balance is enabled with policy separation between work and personal email, you still see all your email accounts when you compose a new message. But you have to enter your work password to send an email from your work account (again, assuming the IT policy separates work email access from personal email access). The Hub's list of emails is limited to those in the accounts allowed for your current workspace.
When Balance is enabled, the work workspace is automatically encrypted. But the personal workspace is left unencrypted. Users who want to protect their own data still should turn on device encryption and set a password for the device to keep their own information and accounts safe if they lose the device. Balance takes care of IT, but not you.
All in all, Balance maintained the separation that many companies want without placing an undue burden on the user. That's critical in today's world. It should be noted that InfoWorld's IT staff ran into some issues when setting up Balance. Users could still establish an account once the setup period had expired, and policy settings weren't always retained for new accounts (you can push them after the fact if that happens). We're not sure why, but after a few rounds, they got Balance working as expected; I suggest you build in some piloting time before doing a broad deployment to learn the peculiarities of the new tool.
The rest of BlackBerry 10
The Contacts app is nicely designed, with configurable fields per card as in iOS. Each card is a hub to a person's social networking activities -- a clone of Microsoft's slick People app approach in Windows Phone and Windows 8. The Calendar app is well-designed and continues to offer the more sophisticated recurring-event patterns of the previous BlackBerry OS. The Remember app for to-do items is also fine, and BlackBerry users will like the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) client and its new support for screen sharing and video chats. The Camera app has some nice photo-retouching capabilities, and the Maps app crisply presents maps and driving directions, though like iOS's Maps app it can route only car traffic, not public transit or foot traffic (as Android can). I do wish that more BlackBerry 10 OS apps supported screen rotation; neither the Maps nor Calendar apps do, for example.
Syncing music, videos, photos, and documents over a USB connection is straightforward with the BlackBerry Link app for your Windows PC or Mac, as is backing up your device, but it's no iTunes. When you play music, then switch to an app or the Hub, there's no simple way to pause the music as in iOS (via the multitasking dock) or Android (via the notification tray). Instead, you need to change the volume to display a pop-up box that has the Pause control.
The BlackBerry App World app store has a fairly small number of apps, a few dozen serious entries, and a similar number of games. BlackBerry says about 40 percent of BlackBerry 10 apps are wrapped version of Android apps, not apps really designed for the new OS. That may quickly fill App World, but Android apps as a whole are not that sophisticated, so it remains to be seen how app-oriented -- as opposed to message-oriented -- the BlackBerry 10 OS will be.
The BlackBerry 10 OS has a Siri-like feature called Voice Control that lets you speak some commands for it to execute, such as "take a note." The voice is harsher than Siri's, and the commands more limited, but it works. Press the center button in the volume rocker to start Voice Control.
The BlackBerry 10 OS's Web browser is fast as promised. The browser has the bookmarking features you'd expect, as well as the Reader feature that Apple debuted in iOS and OS X to show just the text of a Web page when desired.
The WebKit-based browser is the most HTML5-compatible browser yet, according to the HTML5test.com benchmarks. It scores 485 points out of a possible 600, versus 386 for iOS's Safari, 390 for Android's Chrome (the browser in the Google Nexus series), 434 for Android's Browser (which other vendors' Android devices use), and 320 for Windows Phone 8's Internet Explorer. In fact, the BlackBerry 10 browser beats all desktop browsers as well.
The Z10's battery life is so-so -- I often didn't make a full workday before having to recharge. And I could not connect to my company's PEAP- and cetificate-secured Wi-Fi network, a problem that I also experience with Android devices, but not with iOS, Windows, or OS X. Our IT staff was also stymied. After some research, I found BlackBerry documentation that says the certificate for such secure Wi-Fi networks must be manually installed on the BlackBerry 10 -- it won't auto-install on as on most other mobile platforms. That's just dumb, a vestige of the bygone era where IT manually configures every device.
Why Microsoft should worry
Given the superior user experience and capabilities of iOS and Android, it's unlikely most users on those platforms would switch to BlackBerry willingly. But those who find iOS or Android too complex will find BlackBerry 10 to be simpler. And people who haven't chosen a platform should give BlackBerry 10 consideration before deciding. Even with its flaws, the BlackBerry 10 OS is better than Windows Phone 8, which is less capable and less refined. And BlackBerry 10 is more securable. Although imperfect, there's no question that BlackBerry 10 OS is a good mobile OS in its own right.
The combination of the BlackBerry faithful eagerly awaiting a modern BlackBerry OS (which the BlackBerry 10 OS certainly is), a portion of the people yet to commit to a smartphone platform, and the disgruntled Windows Phone 7.5 users who found out after the fact that their smartphones would never run Windows Phone 8 could be enough to double BlackBerry's current sales to 10 percent of the market -- and keep BlackBerry in business.
After all, the BlackBerry 10 OS matches Windows Phone's best feature (the People app), outclasses it in most other areas, and fits better into a security-conscious corporation than Windows Phone does. Additionally, the Z10 is a nice piece of hardware. It's the BlackBerry we've wanted for several years now. And it's finally here.
The old BlackBerry is dead and buried, and the new one is a worthy option in the modern smartphone world