BlackBerry 10 is an operating systems for smartphones from BlackBerry. It's a completely new platform, designed by BlackBerry to take on other smartphones using software such as iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8.
It has all the features you might expect: BlackBerry 10 offers phone, text, email and IM. Voice control, photography, media playback. BlackBerry 10 offers apps, music, movies and more.
BlackBerry 10 is focussed on multi-tasking and messaging, as you might expect from a company with such a strong history in business communications. But it is also intended to attract consumers - BlackBerry 10 gets its apps from BlackBerry World, and out of the gate that app store has 70,000 apps, and music and movie offerings. Indeed, phones running BlackBerry 10 are designed to separate work from play.
We took BlackBerry 10 for a spin on the BlackBerry Z10 handset.
BlackBerry Hub and messaging
BlackBerry first made popular the concept of the mobile communications device, comprising phone and emailer. Indeed, for a while 'BlackBerry' was the generic term for any email-enabled phone. Then in 2007 Apple launched the iPhone and suddenly everything changed: a smartphone had to be a fun gadget as well as an efficient business tool.
BlackBerry 10 brings in all the modern smartphone features you would expect, but it remains a killer messaging platform.
Key to this is the BlackBerry Hub. This is a centralised messaging centre that brings together email, instant messages and social media updates. By using a single swiping gesture anywhere in the OS you can access the Hub. This provides direct access to incoming messages, and lets users send messages of any type from wherever they are in their phone. It's a similar concept to the Share charm in Windows 8, and it shares the both the good- and the bad things about that unified messaging app.
On the plus side you can receive and send messages from multiple email accounts, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as SMS messages and BBM (of which more later). The down side is... well, that's a lot of information. It's the work of a single click to change the view to see only one of these accounts, however, or even a sub folder of your email. But by default you see everything, from critical work email to Facebook post, and we couldn't find a way of seeing - say - just email messages from all of our multiple email accounts, as you can in the iPhone's unified inbox.
It's possible BlackBerry's way is better, but it's different and to my mind not as useful.
Staying on the theme of messaging, BlackBerry also announced an upgrade to its popular BBM instant-messaging application. BBM - or BlackBerry Messenger - is a hugely popular instant-messaging app. BBM now has integrated video chat, a feature that allows users to share their screens at the same time as chatting over video. You can also pick up new BBM contacts by touching two NFC-enabled phones together, back to back.
Testing the new BBM video calling between two Z10 handsets over Wi-Fi (at one end) and 3G (at the other) we found the messaging app simple and quick to use. You can send images, and video chat works well - although the picture remains in portrait mode when you switch the phone to widescreen. The feature that allows you to share your screen while chatting could be useful in business situations.
In short, the new BBM is an improvement on an already popular messaging service. It looks good, and allows you to message away for free, the only cost being the data you use. (That and your colleagues posting screenshots of your 'chat face').
Flow and Peek and Cascades - navigation
Navigating around BlackBerry 10 requires you to use Peek and Flow.
BlackBerry 10 is based around a function BlackBerry refers to as 'BlackBerry Flow': there are no hardware buttons, and navigation is by gesture alone. If you never used the BlackBerry PlayBook, be prepared for a steep learning curve.
Unlike iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8, the homescreen is less than important in BlackBerry 10. You simply Flow from app to app, function to function. Any time you want to go home you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen. If you want to hit the Hub you swipe in from the left. Get to settings by dragging down from the top. All of these from any screen in any app.
Peek is BlackBerry's name for the gesture that lets you see if you have any new messages, again from any view in any app. Dragging in from the left of the screen opens up the Hub, but draging up from the bottom displays notification icons for your messaging apps. Finish your swipe with a flick to the right and the hub opens displaying all your messages, emails, texts and so on.
The lock screen displays the same notification icons, by the way, but doesn't let you do anything with them. So you know you have messages without unlocking your phone, but you can't respond without going through the usual process. This feels like half of a good feature.
There are home screens of course. On one of these you can see live tiles of all the apps you have used recently. It's a nice feature, although we would have liked to be able to rearrange them - the tiles are displayed in the order of most recent use.
Another aspect of BlackBerry 10's navigation is Cascades. This is the name BlackBerry gives for live multitasking from within applications and it bears an uncanny resemblence to Peek. Open up an email and it will display full screen. Drag in from the left and the mail will move rightward, letting you see 'beneath' at a live view of the inbox. Swipe in from the right and your home screen will slide in. It's a simple way of seeing the file structure underneath the window you are looking at, bringing to the mobile space PC-like multitasking. It has great potential.
Navigating BlackBerry 10 is not as simple to describe as the iOS and Windows Phone 8 methods of always returning to the home screen, or even the back buttons of Android and WP8. It can feel confusing.
But Flow is well named: in our experience if you simply go with the Flow you find yourself navigating from task to task in a fast and intuitive way.
How it looks
This is, of course, subjective. To our eyes BlackBerry 10 looks good. It is colourful and bright - on the Z10 at least. It looks modern and businesslike, but is recognisably a BlackBerry OS. The fonts are classic BlackBerry, for instance. The background is a blue gradient, and apps sit on opaic boxes which are also shaded in a gradient. In this case a gradient of grey.
One criticism we do have can also be levelled at Windows Phone 8: in our view the animations take too long, and give BlackBerry 10 the impression of being less snappy than it probably is. It used to be a problem with Android, too. It's a small thing, and it may be just us, but we found it irritating over a period of use.
BlackBerry is good at keyboards. Indeed, one of its first BlackBerry 10 products is the Q10 - a smartphone with a physical keyboard. And the onscreen touch keyboard within BlackBerry 10 is impressive - it's certainly a big improvement over onscreen keyboards of BlackBerry phones of the past.
The big step forward is the next word prediction. As you type words appear on the silver bars that sit like guitar frets between the rows of keys. These spacers create a sense of, well, space, meaning typing feels less cramped. The suggested words are pretty small and - frankly - hard to hit without training. But they learn from your typing as you learn to hit them so the more you use this keyboard the quicker you'll get.
BlackBerry 10 contains another feature called BlackBerry Balance. This splits your phone into work and private partitions. Your business's IT department can lock down and control the former, but you can do what you like with the latter. A virtual firewall between the two partitions allows you to treat your work phone as your media player, conscience clear, with no risk of losing business data.
It's a great concept for those people who have a work BlackBerry.
BlackBerry has in BesX and BlackBerry Enterprise Server the means for businesses of all sizes to run and administer to a fleet of smartphones. BlackBerry Balance makes it easy for the end user to treat their handset as both gadget and work communications device. It might not sell more handsets, but it could save you a few bob (and sell more apps). On which more on the next page...