Published: 1 May, 2012
RIM mounted a campaign to instil confidence in the forthcoming BlackBerry 10 platform, almost certainly its last chance to remain relevant in the device market. The company's new CEO, Thorsten Heins, kicked off the BlackBerry World event by showcasing BB10 and drumming up enthusiasm among developers, though a commercial launch date was elusive as usual.
BB10, which will meld the BlackBerry platform with the former QNX operating system used in the PlayBook tablet, will also push RIM into the evolving world of streamed content, mobile cloud services and HTML5. Having been behind the curve in apps, user experience and even browsing for years, the company has one last chance to keep users and developers loyal to BlackBerry.
With its market share heading downwards - as low as 5% in the most recent quarter according to some estimates - and BB10 not due until "later this year", as Heins said, the signs are not optimistic. Some critics think RIM should admit defeat already and focus on providing a powerful back end server for managing all kinds of mobile enterprise devices and OSs. That is the role of its BlackBerry Fusion platform, which will also be a highlight of this week's event, but the main focus is on convincing the market that BB10 still has time to drive a turnaround.
Heins said developers would soon get prototype devices and that, when the commercial products emerge, RIM would "aggressively incentivize" them to reverse its market share losses. "I am confident we will be there later this year," he said. Among the features those gadgets will sport will be enhanced text input even without a physical keyboard, the hallmark of the BlackBerry experience, though Heins reassured the old faithful, saying: "Even on a full touch device, BlackBerry is still about typing and getting things done" (and some of the new handsets will still have keypads).
The product he used in the demonstration had a large 4.2-inch display and looked rather like a smaller PlayBook and allowed users to tap anywhere on the screen to take a photograph.
But the main innovations are focused on the user interface, which is based on Cascade, the technology from TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), which RIM bought in December 2010. It includes the ability to move in a 'flow' of applications as 'glanceable' information feeds, shifting between apps via gestures. The UI, like Microsoft's for WP7, looks distinctive and modern, said many attendees, and like its larger rival, RIM seems to be creating an experience which offers something refreshingly different from the iOS/Android norms which have dominated mobile design for four years.
"No application stops," Heins said. "Everything you're doing all the time keeps running in the background." He summed up: "This is a new, revolutionary mobile computing engine we have built," claiming it would integrate the hardware and software tightly, but also include unparalleled links to the cloud. .
As Nokia knows, an appealing UI will not be enough. One of the huge challenges is to secure a critical mass of differentiated apps for the new platform - always the issue for anything which is not Android or iOS, as Microsoft knows. BlackBerry has about 60,000 applications, far fewer than its rivals (Apple has 10 times the number), and even those will need to be reworked to support BB10. The 10,000 apps for the PlayBook OS will migrate smoothly however. RIM released the first BB10 developer toolkit, including the Native SDK with Cascades, enabling programmers to build native apps in C or C++ using Qt, the cross-platform framework which was at the heart of Nokia's software strategy before it fell in with Microsoft.