Research in Motion released more information this week about its upcoming overhaul to the BlackBerry mobile OS. BlackBerry 6 is scheduled to arrive by the end of the third quarter, and right now it can't come fast enough for the veteran smartphone maker.
New research released this week revealed a double whammy for RIM: Fewer buyers are planning to purchase a BlackBerry and customer satisfaction with BlackBerry has dropped off a cliff. That's a bitter pill to swallow when you consider that BlackBerry was ranked number one in customer satisfaction by J.D. Power and Associates in 2007 -- the year Apple first released the iPhone.
While BlackBerry remains the overall leader in smartphone market share in the U.S., iPhone and Google Android have stolen away all of the momentum with touchscreen devices that are much easier to use, much better for browsing the Web, and offer better third-party apps.
That's what BlackBerry is up against and those are some of the areas where the platform is trying to catch up with the next release. Take a look at the latest video demo of BlackBerry 6 that RIM has released to see how much ground you think they're making up. Then, read my list below of the top six new developments to watch for in OS 6.
1. Multi-touch interface
The screen resolution shown in the video demo above is 360x480, which is the current resolution of the BlackBerry Storm. The demo itself also extensively makes use of a multi-touch interface and a touchscreen keyboard, which makes it appear that BlackBerry is likely to use touchscreens on all future models.
That doesn't mean BlackBerry's signature hardware keyboard will go away. The widely-rumored BlackBerry 9800 (likely to be called the BlackBerry Torch) features a full touchscreen like the Storm but also includes a slide down keyboard, similar to the Palm Pre. It appears likely that BlackBerry will move to two primary product lines -- one with touchscreen-only (Storm) and one with a touchscreen plus a slide-down qwerty (Torch).
2. Webkit browser
The current Web browsing experience on BlackBerry is slow, difficult to navigate, and frustrating. That's why RIM bought Torch Mobile last year and decided to revamp its Web experience using Torch Mobile's WebKit browser. As shown in the video above, the new BlackBerry browser now offers pinch-to-zoom and touchscreen scrolling. That will be great for touchscreen models, and could bring BlackBerry browsing up to speed with iPhone and Android, but the bigger question is how will the new Webkit browser affect existing BlackBerry smartphones? Will they not get the upgrade?
3. Redesigned home screen
The classic BlackBerry home screen has one row of five to six icons and then you hit the BlackBerry key to see the rest of your apps. The new BlackBerry 6 home screen has two rows of four apps each and then you use the touchscreen to swipe left or right to see different groups of apps.
4. Universal search
Following the lead of Palm webOS and iPhone, BlackBerry 6 will offer an all-device search that will help you find mail messages, contacts, apps, songs, videos, etc. And it will let you extend the search out to the Web if what you're searching for isn't on the device itself.
5. Context-sensitive menus
The BlackBerry key has always served as a menu button to provide additional options (kind of like right-click on a PC). BlackBerry 6 extends that concept into the touch interface. For example, you can touch a person's name and you'll get a pop-up contact menu that will then allow you to quickly call, text, IM, or email that person. In other places you'll be able to touch items on the screen to get more info, configure, or navigate. This should make BlackBerry more intuitive and solve the current headache of having to dig through lots of menus and options to perform simple tasks.
6. Social tools
BlackBerry has already worked with Facebook and Twitter to build solid apps for the BlackBerry platform, but in OS 6, BlackBerry is building some social hooks into the platform itself. With its new Social Feeds app, for example, it will let you post status updates to multiple social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). That app will also allow you to view updates from your contacts across multiple social networks in one place.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).