BlackBerry 10: The beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning

The BlackBerry Z10 is as refreshing as it is infuriating, and BlackBerry will never be the same

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BlackBerry 10 Review

The stage was set. The house was packed. The lights were dim. The cameras were rolling. The crowd was silent. And just as the show kicked off, a BlackBerry blogger was called upon to walk on camera and get his ponytail chopped off. Then, about an hour later, Alicia Keys was brought on stage and given an executive position at RIM (RIMM).

Spectacle aside, BlackBerry — the smartphone vendor’s new name — bared all on Wednesday and showed the world its next-generation BlackBerry 10 operating system. It also unveiled its first two BlackBerry 10 smartphones, the BlackBerry Z10 and the BlackBerry Q10. This operating system and these smartphones mark a new dawn for BlackBerry. These are the weapons the company will use as it fights for its life in Thunderdome.

Like most other attendees at the press conference on Wednesday, I was given a BlackBerry Z10 to take and explore. I got back to my office after the event, opened up the sleek packaging, and dove in.

Firstly, I did not find the BlackBerry 10 interface as confusing as many others seem to have. Confusing is a poor choice of words, I think. The UX in BlackBerry 10 is not confusing, it’s illogical in the context of the modern smartphone platform.

Android and iOS both have linear workflows. You open an app, you close an app. BlackBerry 10 also lets you open and close apps, but there are additional layers that are core to the experience. Swipes up, and down, and left, and right all perform different functions and reveal different layers. Some swipes do different things at different times. Some swipes in one direction expose layers that enter the UI from another direction.

It sounds overbearing but I found that after about 30 minutes of usage, I was able to navigate the UI fluidly with no problems. It’s just like Windows 8. The workflow is new and it takes some getting used to, but it’s really not that complicated. If I can do it, you can probably do it too.

With what is seemingly the biggest barrier to entry overcome, I began to dive deeper. The UI was cheerful and attractive. The display was bright and vivid. The performance was silky smooth. The Hub that aggregates all of my emails, text messages, BBM messages and Twitter notifications was a breath of fresh air.

And just when I started to think that BlackBerry is really on to something here, that BlackBerry 10 could really be something special, that this giant finally has legs… questions began popping up left and right. And they all started with “why.”

Why isn’t there a visual notification with a message preview when a new email or BBM message arrives?

Why do the volume buttons still work when the phone is locked?

Why can’t I schedule profiles so my phone isn’t buzzing and chiming with alerts on my bedside table throughout the night? My RAZR HD is smart enough to know when to shut up. My iPhone is smart enough. My Galaxy S III is smart enough. Why isn’t my Z10, with a brand new operating system, smart enough?

Why can’t I see what time it is when I’m in an app?

Why can’t I find a decent app?

Why do photos captured with the Z10’s camera look like they were taken with a flip phone from 2006 unless the subject is in optimal lighting?

Why does a swipe up on the BlackBerry Hub screen cause a panel to enter the UI from the right?

Why doesn’t it sync to the server instantly when I read an email as with other smartphone platforms, so other devices know to mark opened messages as read?

Why isn’t a BBM chat scrolled down to the most recent message when I get an alert and access the appropriate chat in BlackBerry Hub?

Why?

I could go on and on. Put plainly, BlackBerry 10 isn’t a platform of the future in its current state. It’s a platform of the present in some ways, and in many others it’s a platform of the past.

Early reviews of RIM’s first BlackBerry 10 smartphone paint a somewhat troubling picture. They all find drastic improvements over earlier BlackBerry platforms and they all find faults as well. The conclusions are almost unanimously worrisome, though. BlackBerry 10 is nice, the BlackBerry Z10 is nice, but there is no reason to choose either over Android or the iPhone. 

This is not good news.

BlackBerry has a sizable installed base of just under 80 million users. It is from this group that analysts expect most of the new platform’s early adoption to come. Much of that installed base exists in the enterprise market, where upgrading to new server software and deploying new handsets is a costly endeavor. Another huge chunk comes from various consumer markets around the globe where low-cost handsets prevail and a $750 smartphone is out of the question.

For current BlackBerry users desperate for an upgrade, the Z10 is a fantastic option that makes BlackBerry 7 look sad and stale. The problem, though, is that BlackBerry 10 should make Android and iOS look sad and stale as well.

I’m not going to tell you that there isn’t a market for BlackBerry 10. Businesses that have BlackBerry phones deployed right now might find BB10 to be a great upgrade. Diehards will love it too, of course, because they would love anything BlackBerry put out. Just like iPhone diehards will buy any shiny new iPhone and Android diehards can’t wait for the next bump in specs.

But the mass market — the millions of smartphone users and new business customers RIM needs to reel in — might not be so easy to convince.

Frankly, people invested in other platforms have no reason to switch to BlackBerry 10. There are no compelling features present on the Z10 that are missing from their iPhones and Galaxy S IIIs, there is no striking differentiation, and they’ll lose most or even all of their favorite apps if they switch. It’s a very, very tough sell. Is it possible for BlackBerry 10 to gain a fair amount of traction with the right marketing message and the right sales pitch at retail stores? Maybe, but it’s a long shot at best.

With all that said, I sincerely hope BlackBerry has done enough to give current users incentive to open their wallets. I hope BlackBerry 10 attracts some new users as well. I hope the company sells millions of these new phones and I hope the revenue they generate is enough to carry BlackBerry forward as it uses BlackBerry 10’s building blocks to mold its new platform into something special.

The groundwork is there. I can see it. Yes, there are holes and yes, some are gaping. But with enough time I think BlackBerry can fill many of them. The question, though, is whether or not the company can also start building real innovation and compelling differentiation into its platform while also filling these holes. BlackBerry’s future may depend on the answer to this question.

We all now bear witness to what will inexorably be the beginning of the end for BlackBerry, or the end of the beginning.

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