First play with the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha

Dev Alpha Title 2

BlackBerry manufacturer ‘Reasearch In Motion’ (RIM) had me over at their North Sydney office recently to show the progress of the upcoming BlackBerry 10 operating system, to meet the new Managing Director of RIM in Australia and New Zealand, Matthew Ball, and to talk to their developer relations people, and to get to play with the Dev Alpha device of BB10.

Matthew Ball, the recently installed Managing Director of RIM in Australia and New Zealand was on hand to discuss the future direction of BlackBerry, and how BB10 is their game change, designed to put a BlackBerry back into your hand (what, you left?). This strategy hinges on the new BlackBerry 10 operating system. Matthew Ball, in discussing the reliable and solid platform that BB10 is shaping up to be, informed how BB10 devices are built on the QNX operating system that runs the BlackBerry PlayBook, cars, trains, systems on the International Space Station, routers, automation systems … (Stop. You had me at ‘Space Station’).

BB10 is currently in an early ‘Dev Alpha’ state for application developers to work with, but far enough along to give us the demonstration of some key features. The first phones to be released will be touch screen only, with physical keyboard versions being further along the roadmap.

What’s exciting about it?

Keyboard: A new system of typing involving a set of swipe movements, which in testing has revealed that people can type up to 40% faster than other keyboards, after a bit of a learning curve that any new typing system entails. From my look at it, it appears to be similar to autocorrect, except with multiple word options that complete based on which direction you swipe in.

I’ve always preferred physical keyboards. I find them to be faster that any touch screen (particularly so with the Bold 9900, which in my opinion is the fastest mobile keyboard ever produced), and you can slide your thumbs across the keys and only press when you’re on top of what you want. Of course, the market has spoken, and seemingly 95% of people want a pure touch screen, and touch is what they’ll get.

A time travelling camera: In those moments that you only have one shot at a photo, one of your subjects looks perfect, yet another person in frame blinked or had a strange expression in that fraction of a second where the shutter clicked. Your photo was destroyed. You didn’t get the shot. Not anymore.

The camera features facial recognition, which places an outline around faces as you’re lining up your shot – much like any number of digital cameras on the market. Where it gets interesting though, is that when you press the shutter, it must take several shots in very quick succession. If someone in the shot doesn’t look quite right, you press on one of the face recognition indicators and slide an indicator either forward or back in time from the main shot. You’re not just selecting an entirely different frame as your photo – you’re moving their face in time only. It’s dead easy to use, and you get your perfect photo. OK … this excites me more than the keyboard.

Where are the buttons?

On the Dev Alpha device, I only saw volume buttons. I suspect that swiping is going to be a big part of the finished product. The BlackBerry PlayBook allows you to swipe from the bezel (which is just wasted space in most devices), and this may well be heading in that same direction.

Hardware: The Dev Alpha device I got to play with felt rather light, although we still don’t know what the hardware specifications of the finished product will be. No details of if the device will be LTE (what is marketed as 4G) or just 3G, or what frequency bands it will run on. In the past, BlackBerry has suffered from a strange mix of frequency bands that have not suited Australian networks. You can’t just swap your Telstra and Optus SIM cards on your phone and have it work on their primary network, although it would fall back to their lesser networks.

Applications: RIM know that apps are the lifeblood of a smartphone. Without apps, there will not be a user-base. RIM have copped a lot of flack for how they’ve previously handled developers, but I get the feeling that they are now working really closely with developers and are actively encouraging developers to write for BB10. In talking to their developer relations people, it was made clear that BB10 is easy to port applications to (particularly from Android), which will make it easier for companies to release for multiple platforms in a cost effective way. As RIM are rebuilding a customer base from near scratch, this is critical to the success of BB10. Along with this, I would hope the BlackBerry App World will get a facelift.

What I want from BB10 (and the phones it will run on): I gave RIM feedback on what I would like to see in the upcoming BB10 devices.

Focus on battery life: If it comes down to a device that it a few millimetres thinner and a few grams lighter, or a few more hours of operation, I’ll take the bigger battery.

Dual-SIM capability: People want this, and it would be great for people who regularly travel overseas, or just have different phones for different people. This move would upset the telcos, as they don’t want to subsidise a phone that is then used on a competitor’s network. Don’t hold your breath on this one.

Strong security: A bit of a niche product, but I would like to see voice encryption above and beyond the standard that all digital phone networks have. I want this as an app. There are a few companies out there that have secure encrypted phone call applications, although there is no authoritative name in this industry yet, and no two products are compatible. RIM wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel on this, and could implement some form of ZRTP (Zfone) if they didn’t want to go wholly proprietary. And for a crazy idea, release the app on other platforms such as iOS, WP8 and Android. My first BlackBerry was actually a Nokia E61, which licensed the BlackBerry e-mail system. The exposure to the platform encouraged me to look further into BlackBerry devices, and to soon get a full BlackBerry. This may upset some Governments, but it’s an untapped market (other than the ridiculous prices that virtually no one is paying for the disparate systems out there), and RIM need to encourage more people back to and onto their platform.

The BlackBerry 10 operating system is the bet-the-company move that RIM have no choice but to make. They need to get a lot right, and they need to get it right for day 1. But can it be done? There are a lot of people out there who really want BlackBerry to bounce back and succeed, and they want RIM to deliver a product that will bring them back to their beloved CrackBerry. There is precedent for this. There was a time not so long ago that Apple was in failure mode. The time travelling camera has the wow factor, and with a couple more unique killer features, and with support from application developers, the BlackBerry 10 platform can get back in play. RIM is no longer resting on their laurels, and is innovating their way back into the game.

Oh, and RIM have not recently offloaded one of their corporate jets. That was just a rumour 😉

Originally posted on 28 August 2012

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