Can BlackBerry 10 Keep RIM Relevant?

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined
as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

Follow on: Google +

BlackBerry 10 is a solid piece of software, says Steve McCaskill, but is it enough to reverse RIM’s fortunes?

BlackBerry 10 doesn’t exist and it’s already not had an easy life. Stuck in development hell, it has been subject to constant delays, an enforced name change, and it now has the considerable weight of RIM’s collective expectations placed on its shoulders.

The fledgling platform must convince consumers that it is a viable alternative to the smartphone duopoly of iOS and Android – and at the same time persuade enterprises that it remains the best option for their organisation. No pressure then.

RIM gave TechWeekEurope a look at BlackBerry 10 in London last week and our first impression is positive. But is it enough to revive the once industry-standard BlackBerry?

Go with the flow

We saw the operating system running on a fairly vanilla full touchscreen device that has been handed out to application developers, but RIM has confirmed that there will be a variety of devices released in 2013, including at least one with a physical keyboard.

The buzzword that RIM used when demonstrating BlackBerry 10 was ‘flow’. According to the company, this best describes how the platform handles multitasking as users are able to ‘flow’ between eight simultaneously running applications by initiating simple touch gestures.

These gestures, which can also summon menus and notifications, took some getting used to, but are a powerful tool when using BlackBerry 10. At first glance it appears as though these are powered by multi-touch gestures, but this is not the case as swipes must start from the side of the screen. The ‘peek’ function is the most interesting, allowing you to view notifications, emails and messages without ever leaving the application that you are currently using.

Business and pleasure

Standard productivity features like contact and calendar applications were also shown, as was the BlackBerry Hub, which aggregates messages, social network notifications and emails into one place. The absence of a physical keyboard may scare some BlackBerry die-hards, but RIM promised that the virtual keyboard would learn how a user types so that composing messages and emails becomes faster and easier.

In the short time we spent with BlackBerry 10, the software did not have a chance to adapt, but we were shown some other interesting features such as the ability to delete text simply by swiping the keyboard.

RIM says that it is chasing the consumer with BlackBerry 10 and it shows. Applications are summoned from menus that look very similar to the gird used by both iOS and Android. Icons are blockier than its rivals, but it is clean, simple and intuitive.

RIM has of course included consumer features in previous versions of its operating systems, but IT managers have blocked them. BlackBerry Balance is a prominent feature of BlackBerry 10 and allows users to switch between work and personal profiles instantly. Enterprise data is kept separate and administrators can create their own app stores comprising approved software and custom applications.

It’s impossible to cut and paste sensitive data into a Facebook status and users don’t even see the work profile until they are connected to a secure server for the first time. Switching between the two profiles is as simple as tapping the screen and could be a solution that appeases IT managers and employees.

Is it enough?

Although we spent only a short time with BlackBerry 10, it’s clear that it is a vast improvement over its predecessors, but the true test will be once we get our hands on some of the smartphones due to be announced in January, not least to see how it behaves with a physical keyboard.

It’s aesthetically pleasing, but beyond security and administration features, BlackBerry 10 appears to lack a unique selling point. It may be difficult to convince iOS and Android users to jump ship, just as Microsoft and Nokia have struggled to get Windows Phone’s message across.

RIM’s existing user base is also declining. The US government has opened the door to other manufacturers as RIM’s advantage in security is eroded, while Citrix and its customers have claimed that businesses are ceasing to invest in BlackBerry devices or servers. A recent iPass report has even suggested that RIM has been leapfrogged by Android in the workplace, having already been surpassed by the iPhone.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that businesses are fed up with dated handsets and aging software. One executive at a major tech company told TechWeekEurope last week that “BlackBerry was finished,” while another complained how long it was going to take to receive his iPhone as a replacement for his BlackBerry.

Constant delays and a lack of developments have given the impression that RIM has nothing left to give, but the highly-usable BlackBerry 10 may give it a fighting chance to stay relevant.

The suspicion is that BlackBerry has merely caught up with the competition rather than trumping it.

What do you know about BlackBerry smartphones? Find out with our quiz!