BlackBerry World Day 1: BlackBerry 10 and Dev Alpha Unit Hands On

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The conventional wisdom among mobile industry experts is that BlackBerry 10, the next iteration of RIM’s operating system, represents the company’s last hope for relevance in a landscape now dominated by iOS and Android. According to analytics firm comScore, RIM owns just 12.3% of the US market, down from 16% in December, and likely to continue to decline as RIM relies on aging hardware running BlackBerry 7, the current operating environment that debuted last August.

As such, the stakes could not have been higher for new CEO Thorsten Heins as he took the stage at BlackBerry World in Orlando, RIM’s annual gathering of developers and devotees. And while Heins did not announce any new hardware or plans to immediately suture up RIM’s hemorrhaging user base, he did show just enough of BlackBerry 10 to give attendees hope that RIM has better days ahead.

Flow, Camera, Keyboard
BlackBerry 10Unfortunately for show goers, BlackBerry 10 was not available for attendees to try out in person. However, from Heins presentation and official unveiling during the BlackBerry World Keynote, it’s apparent that BlackBerry 10 will have much in common with RIM’s own PlayBook OS 2.0. In fact, developer prototypes handed out at the show run a modified version of the tablet operating system, and not BlackBerry 10.

Just like RIM’s tablet operating system, BlackBerry 10 will be based around QNX, which is known for its reliability with multitasking, and has been featured in the international space station and in-car systems, prior to RIM’s acquisition in 2010.
Also just like the PlayBook OS 2.0, BlackBerry 10 will be heavily gesture based, with swipes from the screen edges used to navigate the device, between apps, within apps, and glance at notifications. Heins called it “flow,” and those familiar with the latest (and last?) iteration of webOS will see many similarities. BlackBerry 10 will also support true multitasking, and not just task switching. Open apps can run at all times, even when not front and center on the handset. The PlayBook has a similar feature, though users can set apps to pause when not in use. It will be interesting to see how this affects battery life on handsets.

Rather than borrow from the PlayBook, the BlackBerry 10 homescreen shown off by Heins looked very similar to Windows 7 devices. The homescreen consisted of four icons, or tiles, each with basic app info. For the demo, that included weather, pictures, music, and calendar. Underneath was a task bar with icons for phone, search and camera. A status bar with battery gauge, alarms, Bluetooth, clock, Wi-Fi, and cellular signal strength rested on top.

BlackBerry 10 keyboardThe onscreen keyboard has also been updated with the swipe gesture in mind. It will feature predictive text with words accessible through letters, and a user swipe to input the word. It looked elegant in demo videos, and perhaps an improvement from the Android and iOS predictive text feature, though the combination of quickly tapping and swiping may take some getting used to. The touchscreen will also apparently learn user habits and tap spots, and adjust accordingly, providing more accurate key entry.

Perhaps the most innovative BlackBerry 10 feature is the new camera software. A tap anywhere on the screen from the camera app snaps the picture, and then users can use a timeline scroll bar to “rewind” the picture a few milliseconds before or “fast forward” the picture to just after it was shot in order to capture the best frame – say, if a subject was blinking or stopped smiling.

BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha Unit Hands On

Developers attending BlackBerry Jam, which is running concurrently with BlackBerry World, will walk home with a BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha unit for developing BlackBerry 10 apps. Unfortunately for them, the Dev Alpha units do not currently run BlackBerry 10, but rather a scaled back version of PlayBook OS 2.0, and the Dev Alpha unit we got our hands on, only featured the camera and the browser.

There is no better way to describe the Dev Alpha handset than as a baby BlackBerry PlayBook. It features the same box-style build with semi-rounded corners and rubberized body. It had a quality build and has good heft, and could probably withstand the semi-occasional drop.

Dev Alpha display

RIM was elusive with internal specs, but we do know the Dev Alpha unit features a 4.2-inch display with 1280 x 768 resolution. The long sides include a microSIM card slot, microUSB input for charging, and microHDMI port. Two volume and one play/pause button sit on the other side.

Dev Alpha back

A sizable power button and 3.5 audio input rest on a short side, while the opposite houses the speaker.

Dev Alpha speaker Dev Alpha power

The device also features NFC support as well as front- and rear-facing cameras (no word on resolution). The barcode you see is not a feature, but rather just a barcode for each individual dev unit, and it also appears RIM incorporated the famous BlackBerry red LED indicator light.

Dev Alpha inputs

RIM reps were quick to dismiss any suggestions future BB10 devices will resemble the Dev Alpha handset, but from this design combined with the new onscreen keyboard tech (and general consumer preference) it’s clear that RIM is moving away from the physical handset QWERTY many claim it perfected. RIM reps confirmed the company has not abandoned the physical keyboard design, though the standard will likely be touchscreens moving forward.

It’s probably also safe to assume that the first BB10 handsets will feature a 1280 x 768 resolution, given that RIM is asking devs to test apps around that spec. RIM reps claimed the Dev Alpha unit will receive more BB10-like features via OTA updates in the coming months, but will not receive the final shipping version. Devs can trade in their Dev Alpha units for limited-edition BB10 handsets once it launches

Coming Soon?

RIM has yet to set a firm date for when BlackBerry 10 will ship, though late 2012 seems to be the target. One RIM rep claimed that “you only get one chance to make a first impression” when asked why BB10 was not available for attendees to try out. So if the late 2012 date stands, BlackBerry 10 handsets will be competing with the next iPhone, likely running iOS 6, and Android Jelly Bean 5.0 handsets. What will RIM’s market share be then?

The general reaction at BlackBerry World to BlackBerry 10 seemed very positive, but this is also the only place where users carrying PlayBooks rival those with iPads. However, the mobile industry is very volatile, and Heins just may turn RIM’s fortunes around with BB10.

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