In a world dominated by companies like Samsung and Apple, it's easy to forget that BlackBerry (née RIM) was once the company to beat in the smartphone market. New BlackBerry models were eagerly anticipated and hailed as examples of excellent design. Workers with low-end models were clearly on the bottom of the corporate totem pole, while those in upper echelons (or aspiring to those positions) proudly displayed the latest model in the Bold series, safely ensconced in a leather belt holster.
After several halfhearted attempts to compete in the touchscreen world, BlackBerry essentially went back to the drawing board. Over a year without any major product releases, they finally rolled out the Z10, BlackBerry's first touchscreen device running the completely overhauled BB 10 OS. Does this mark BlackBerry's return as a contender or the last gasp of a dying company?
BlackBerry devices are inextricably linked to their hardware since, like Apple, the company produces both the OS and the hardware. For the BlackBerry faithful, the Z10 is finally an answer to the sea of Apple- and Android-powered slate devices, and it's competently executed. Larger and heavier in all dimensions than an iPhone 5, the Z10 has a clean exterior with no buttons marring the front of the unit. The screen looks deceptively large, since the front of the device has glass running to the sides, but the actual display area is a few millimeters smaller than the glass in all dimensions — and despite the large piece of glass, the display is similar in size to an iPhone 5, which makes it smaller than the latest Android devices.
There's nothing here that hasn't been done on other smartphones, but the device provides a sturdy, buttoned-down business handset. It lacks the "sex appeal" of the latest Galaxy or HTC One but provides a solid feel and retains a pleasantly graspable faux-leather back that marked the company's Bold line.
The Z10 does provide an easily accessed removable battery. With the latest software update, I was able to get a full day's usage from the device, and the removable battery should keep even the most intense users free from worrying about external battery cases or carrying bulky chargers once they tuck a secondary battery into their briefcase or purse. BlackBerry also maintains the standard micro-USB power connector, and the various chargers I had lying around my home and office all powered the device, so there's no need to invest in new proprietary chargers for the Z10.
There's little to drive the design-focused crowd toward the Z10, but it's a respectable-looking device that finally delivers modern touchscreen hardware to the BlackBerry ecosystem. With the "decent hardware" box checked, it's time to move on to the biggest change to the BlackBerry, the BB 10 OS.
Let your fingers do the walking
Make no mistake: BB 10 is an entirely new operating system vs. the aging Java-based platform BlackBerry left behind. While applications like the unified inbox will look familiar, navigation and underlying technology are entirely new. Much like the trackball was the core navigational component of the older OS, gestures are the new currency in BB 10 — more so than Android or iOS. With no buttons on the face of the device, gestures take you to the home screen, show your running applications, bring you to the unified inbox, and even wake the phone from standby.
While initially awkward, the core gestures are easily learned, and BlackBerry borrows a trick pioneered from Palm's WebOS by showing small screenshots of running applications rather than mere icons, which allows you to quickly switch between applications and get an overview of the state of an application. Swipe to the left of this screen, and you're in the "BlackBerry Hub," the device's unified inbox that consolidates incoming mail, messages, and social media notifications. A half-day of frequently incorrect swipes, and I'd largely mastered navigation. Having one's inbox two swipes away from anywhere in the device was convenient, but opening and closing apps was similar to Android and iOS, with the usual sea of icons, folder capabilities, and multiple screens.
The famous BlackBerry physical keyboard is obviously missing from the Z10, but BlackBerry has attempted to replicate it in a touchscreen format, complete with graphical versions of the metal rails between rows from the Bold devices. The keys are large and clear, and I found that I made the fewest "new phone errors" while typing on the BlackBerry keyboard. Unlike the aging iOS keyboard, this one is full-featured out of the box, providing customizable auto-correct and predictive entry that far exceeds what's on offer from iOS and rival third-party keyboards on Android.
The one feature I struggled with was the word prediction feature, whereby the keyboard presents potential words that the user can "flick" into the text they're entering. My "flick" succeeded about 50% of the time, with the attempt usually being interpreted as another letter rather than a flick of the suggested word. Assuming the problem mostly rested with my large fingers on the screen rather than an inherent flaw in the software, the keyboard is one of the best standard smartphone keyboards and shows that a great deal of consideration went into its execution.
To be continued...
With basic hardware and navigation covered, in my next post about the BlackBerry Z10, I'll discuss email, applications, enterprise applicability, and whether the BB 10 represents a return to dominance for the beleaguered BlackBerry. What are your initial thoughts about the Z10? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.