RIM today gave a brief demonstration of its new mobile OS on an early prototype handset. And both represent a dramatic break from RIM's traditional BlackBerry heritage.
Some features of what will be BlackBerry 10 are already evident in the operating system for RIM's PlayBook tablet, since both platforms are based on software acquired by RIM -- the QNX realtime kernel -- and the UI engineering and design from The Astonishing Tribe (or TAT). But what was shown onstage today suggests that RIM is taking a new approach to keeping mobile users connected to the digital worlds they're creating online.
BB10 is still a work in progress and not scheduled for even beta release until later this year. But the demonstrations today sparked developer interest and praise and a word that must come as a relief to RIM executives: "cool."
Just three months into his new job as RIM's CEO, Thorsten Heins emceed the brief demos before a packed house of thousands of BlackBerry developers and users at BlackBerry World in Orlando.
The prototype device, called the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha (pictured), looks essentially like a larger, early iPhone design. It offers developers only limited functions (for example, it's missing a cellular radio), and is intended only as an aid for software developers to start designing their applications. The units being passed out to developers at the companion BlackBerry 10 Jam conference actually include a version of the PlayBook's OS. RIM PR reps repeatedly stressed that Dev Alpha does not represent a template for the BB10 smartphones and software to be released later this year.
"It's working, and it works well," Heins said in the keynote, as he introduced the long-awaited demo to a supportive audience. "We're hitting the milestones we set ourselves."
"There is a whole new [user] paradigm out there," he said. "It's one that adapts to you, and gives you real-time information."
The initial start screen showed three large panels or cards, representing apps. There are no buttons, software or hardware, because as with PlayBook, the bezel is the starting point for specific gestures that trigger actions, such as sweeping up from the bottom to go back to the start screen. Moving a finger from one edge revealed a set of notifications. The demo showed how a user could overlay multiple layers of an app, moving into a messaging app or conversation and then into the details of a given thread. But the "edges" of the card are stacked, so the user can see all the levels in relationship to each other and move easily between them.
Heins said this approach creates a "flow" that lets users orient themselves, navigate and work with apps more easily and quickly.
The same demo also showed that BB10 real-time multitasking keeps all of the apps active and running. "You can take action on any [information] feed without popping in and out of different apps," Heins said.
The demo showed a new onscreen keyboard, with some startling changes. First, the look incorporates the metal frets, and big keys, that are distinctive on the traditional BlackBerry keyboard. The entire experience mimics, apparently effectively, the two-thumb typing pattern familiar to longtime users. And RIM's software engineers have worked to reduce latency, and added a series of algorithms so the keyboard learns and remembers the user's typing patterns.
As keys were pressed, the software guessed what the next word might mean. A flick of the thumb upward moved that word to the text field. Swiping from the side over the keyboard deletes an entire word.
Users can take a picture instantly by tapping the camera and then tapping the screen anywhere. Selecting that photo, a "halo" encircles part of the picture, such as a face. Moving your finger can "dial back" in time to find the precise expression or instant that you want to capture.
BB10 is not simply a new software platform, Heins announced. "BlackBerry 10 is a new, revolutionary mobile computing engine that we have built," he said. He walked to a new black Porsche convertible that had been outfitted with built-in telematics, dashboard and entertainment systems, all running on a single instance of BlackBerry 10. It was a signal that RIM plans to leverage the extensive automotive installed base for QNX, as part of an ambitious effort to redefine "mobile" much more broadly -- no longer as just personal, but personally related to other mobile systems and to an array of cloud services.
Developers reacted very positively to what they had seen.
"The UI, their use of gestures, it looks very promising," says Daniel Bigham, an independent software developer. "They're clearly leveraging the work by TAT."
The metaphor of overlapping cards means "you can move in and out of apps [easily], it just flows from one to the other," says Stephen Cunliffe, an independent BlackBerry developer.
"You need to be able to see and work with more than one app," says Bigham. "You can even change how much of each card you see."
There was a lot of excitement about RIM's approach to the keyboard. "They have really put a lot of work into the keyboard: It's totally new," said Will Robertson, of SmarterApps, who's been developing BlackBerry-based apps for about two years.
"I was wondering if they would alienate BlackBerry keyboard users," Bigham says. "But the new keyboard is just cutting-edge."
For these developers, what RIM accomplished with the BB10 keyboard seems to promise similar innovation and attention to details in other areas. Kevin Richard, another independent programmer, repeatedly used the word "cool" to describe his reaction, a word that seems to have bypassed RIM for far too long.
"With the Android keyboard, there are just so many things that bother the [heck] out of me," says Richard. He described briefly the multiple steps, confusions and annoyances that plagued him. "But the [new] BlackBerry keyboard seems very intuitive."
"The camera was a 'wow' moment," says John Pinkerton, IT systems administrator for Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, in Hiawatha, Iowa. "Being able to take a picture and 'go back' to just the right moment."
But it's not just coolness that motivates these programmers. Joyal Rab is another programmer who's writing for PlayBook. "BB10 is very simple to develop for," he says. RIM released beta versions of a clutch of development tools -- for Adobe Air, HTML5 and native app -- letting programmers with these skills to begin building apps for BB10.
And then there's the money. Will Robertson opts for BlackBerry because it's a good market, he says, meaning "they have really good monetization" in the BlackBerry App World online catalog.
Officially, RIM executives will only say that BB10 and the first smartphones to run it will be released later this year.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww Email: [email protected] Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed
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