The first time I saw a BlackBerry, I knew it was going to change the game. It was at a Soundview financial conference in 1998, and RIM was showing off its latest two-way pagers. I thought they were solid offerings, but I remarked that I really didn't want to have to start using yet another email address; when would someone give us the ability to access corporate email on the go?
I guess that was the right question, because I was quietly ushered away and given my first demo of the BlackBerry device and service. It was love at first click. While RIM didn't invent the smartphone category, pretty much every device we use today owes something to that first truly wireless email gadget.
Fast forward 15 years and the story has changed. In a world of iPhones and Android devices, RIM and BlackBerry no longer hold the same luster that they did for years after the BlackBerry was launched. There has been a growing sense for a while now that the BlackBerry would have to evolve if it was going to remain competitive with more modern platforms. In a world where consumerisation rules, the BlackBerry needed to lose some of its pinstriped corporate propriety and gain the sorts of features that would appeal to consumers as well as business users.
This week, RIM came forward with its answers to that challenge. It took the wraps off both a new operating system, called BlackBerry 10, and two new devices, the Z10 and the Q10. The Q10, a QWERTY keyboard device that makes no big breaks from BlackBerries of old, won't make an appearance until later this spring.
The Z10 (top image) is a different story, though. It is a pure touch-screen device, and a beautiful piece of hardware. It has a lovely high-resolution screen (with so-called retina pixel density), a soft-touch back and a removable battery and micro-SD card. What it doesn't have are any buttons other than power and volume controls. All other actions are handled through gestures. Swipe up to unlock the device or to return home. (The same gesture turns on a powered-down Z10.) The home will show you the eight apps that you have most recently launched. You can dive into those apps directly from home. You can also close unwanted apps.
If you want to access other apps, just swipe left and you'll see a grid of app icons. These can be rearranged to suit you, including moving them into folders.
Then there's the heart of all BlackBerrys, email and scheduling. Swipe right and you'll get to the BlackBerry hub, an orderly consolidation of emails, reminders, notices, updates, etc. You can employ filters so that you'll see exactly what you want to see. You can also jump directly into the mail app for a deep dive. There's native support for just about all types of personal and corporate email systems, along with native Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn services and apps.
In addition, the BB10 OS offers an integrated view of both notes and tasks, called Remember. Items here can come from anywhere, and there's full support and integration for Evernote, Box and Dropbox -- just about every major service one could want is available at launch and out of the box. Add in a full copy of Documents to Go for office functionality and you have a mobile device that can meet many users' needs.
The Z10's performance is excellent. In my use, I never experienced a lag in switching between apps or launching. In fact, RIM brags on this, noting that it didn't include a ticking-clock icon in its new OS to indicate that the system is doing something. From what I've seen, RIM is right; there's simply no need for such an icon, because whatever the OS is working on is completed before you can even feel like you're waiting for something.
All of those things should please any user, but they're certainly geared mostly toward the business users who have always been the backbone of RIM's business. But what has the company done for consumers? The Z10 has one of the fastest cameras I've seen, and BB10 comes with basic features for photo editing. There's also a cool Story Maker app that lets you quickly assemble photos and videos into a montage that's easily shared. It's not a full-blown editing tool, but it's fun. BB10 also connects to RIM's music and video store and offers some other services, with more promised in the near future. There's a pretty good selection of game titles, including the popular Angry Birds Star Wars. The BB10 marketplace isn't as well populated as other app markets, and that does underscore a challenge for RIM. All the same, RIM has done a good job of making sure the table-stakes apps are available at launch. But if it is going to capture consumers' hearts and minds, RIM will need to keep the momentum building and its marketplace growing.
The mobile market is moving so quickly that RIM has been in real danger of losing all the benefits of its vaunted brand strength. BB10 and the Z10 won't return RIM to its former glory overnight, but they do show that RIM isn't going to cede any part of this market to its competitors. That's what RIM needed to do right now. Its next challenge is to educate the market on the differentiation its products bring to the market.