BlackBerry OS 10, BlackBerry Z10: First Impressions

January 31, 2013

Yesterday, I attended the worldwide launch of BlackBerry 10 (the Toronto instance). I was impressed by the way the event was handled, by the PR moves that were announced, and most of all by the new OS itself. I think BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) has done everything right. I sincerely hope the often-fickle marketplace rewards them for it.

Since yesterday, I’ve had a chance to spend an hour or so with the new BlackBerry Z10. Here are a few early impressions.

BlackBerry Z10 default apps    BlackBerry Z10 minimized apps

Physical

In a word, sexy. The Z10 is on the large side for a phone, but I like that. I wouldn’t want a much smaller screen, and generally prefer larger ones, myself. The shape is simple and elegant, and the back (which is actually a cover for the battery compartment) is made of a very friendly soft plastic with a dimpled grid surface. (When you open the back to insert the battery and SIM card, you find that this piece is actually quite flexible.)

The Display

The obvious comparison will be to Apple’s Retina display. Bottom line, no matter how closely I look, I can’t see the individual pixels. Looking at a smooth, bright color gradient, you get the feeling the dots are there, lurking just below the threshold of sight. Sharper eyes than mine might just be able to pick them out, from a couple of inches away. But in normal use, they’re invisible. The display looks great.

The User Interface

From the pre-release descriptions, BlackBerry OS 10 seems like a radical departure. In fact, it’s very familiar, if you’ve used a BlackBerry PlayBook. Clearly, BlackBerry (the company) has taken what worked and evolved it for a smaller form factor.

PlayBook users will find that the ability to ‘minimize’ running apps is core in OS 10. The difference (in the handheld version, at least) is that minimized apps display not side-by-side, but in a 4×4 grid. When you have more than 4 apps running, the grid scrolls vertically. Also, the app tiles don’t seem to be ‘live’ as on the PlayBook. They either freeze the last view, or revert to a generic representation of the app.

PlayBook users will also find two very familiar swipe commands. Swipe up from the bottom of the display, in order to minimize an app. Swipe down from the top to drag open the app’s options menu.

What’s missing, alas, is the ability to swipe sideways between running apps. That was one of my favorite features of the PlayBook. It made multitasking truly effortless, and put the PlayBook miles ahead of any other platform. With OS 10, you have to minimize the current app and pick another from the grid. Not a big deal, but less convenient than the older way.

In exchange for removing the side-swipe task switching, you now have the new Peek feature. Swipe up and over to the right, and the current app slides over, revealing the new communications Hub. This works from anywhere. For instance, you can Peek when viewing the minimized app grid, or the desktop of installed apps. However, if there’s a way to Peek at anything other than the Hub, I have yet to find it. If, like me, you value communications less than some other capability, you may find this a bit frustrating. Most users, I assume, will love it.

The Apps

The BlackBerry Z10 includes all the usual apps: calculator, calendar, contact manager, camera, photo viewer, video player, clock. But there are some nifty extras as well.

My own favorite is Documents to Go, which appeared on the PlayBook as well. It’s a meaningful value added, since it’s kind of vital, and costs up around $15 even when it’s on sale. Moreover, the BlackBerry version seems to be significantly nicer than the one I actually bought for my Android devices. For instance, the word processor has a formatting toolbar.

There are dedicated apps for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare, but these can be accessed via the Hub as well. BlackBerry (the company) tells me that the intent is to steer users to the full app for deeper dives, and make message feeds easily available in the Hub.

Story Maker is novel: a simple video editor that can combine video and photos, adding transition effects and text captions. Pretty neat, for a handheld device.

There’s a Dropbox app, which is welcome. And a Newsstand, that shows “view and purchase published content on a per issue or subscription basis.” I had to “share” my name and date of birth in order to run the app, and was rewarded with the option to download the latest issue of Surfer magazine, or Bicycle Times. Not so sure about this one…

Also interesting is the Compass app. Not only does it show the direction, it adds a 3D ’tilt’ effect when you move the Z10 around. Just a visual frill, to be sure. But fun.

Connectivity

Like the PlayBook, the Z10 can be set to share files via Wi-Fi. I had no trouble opening the device from Windows Explorer without installing any software on my desktop system. I consider that a huge bonus… iTunes is the biggest reason I’ll never be a big iOS user. I know some users prefer a comprehensive ‘sync’ capability, and it was certainly there with the PlayBook, but I haven’t discovered the OS 10 equivalent so far.

Oddly, the Z10 insisted I set up a password for Wi-Fi access, then allowed me to access the device and copy files without one. Not sure what that’s all about. Lots more to learn!

Bottom Line

The BlackBerry Z10 is as slick a piece of mobile gear as I’ve had my hands on. I’d pick it in a nanosecond over an iPhone. The greater openness and evolved ecosystem of Android remain compelling to me, but the big thing is that with OS 10, BlackBerry becomes a serious contender, a worthy inclusion in the Top Three. I don’t think Apple will be quaking in its boots, but I suspect that Windows Phone 8 may find its progress slowed still further, as businesses turn first to the mobile solution they’ve already been happy with.

I haven’t even played with the BlackBerry’s new Work/Home capability, which will let enterprises have secure apps and data on the same device alongside a user’s own stuff. That’s a compelling feature. And the overall implementation strikes me as much slicker, more familiar and more efficient than WinPhone. No doubt Microsoft’s OS will continue to have its fans, but BlackBerry will force them to work even harder to justify their views.

More thoughts on this subject as I continue to explore…


CES 2013: Why Should Consumers Care?

January 7, 2013

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is about to kick-off in Las Vegas, and the tide of hype is in full flood. But this year the show is under a shadow. A number of the major participants are seeing ten- or eleven-figure cash problems, and other companies — such as Microsoft — won’t be attending. Industry response to these fundamental concerns boils down to: “What — me worry?”

Reuters has just predicted the major trends at CES 2013:

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas promises a new generation of “smart” gadgets, some controlled by voice and gestures, and technology advancements in cars, some of which already let you dictate emails or check real-time gas prices.

ZDnet speculates along similar lines as to what will be The Next Big Thing. Of course, we all have a vested interest in this, and a strong temptation to offer the most optimistic outlook. But the reality is that this year there may be no “Next Big Thing.” This could well be the year that the whole consumer electronics industry runs out of steam.

Alas, even the most feverish predictions for CES 2013 are unexciting. More tablets. More smart TV. More home-automation. In short, more of a lot of stuff that no one was excited about when it was actually fresh and new. Mixed with a few half-baked concepts that don’t target any burning need, and don’t work all that well anyway.

For example, voice and gesture interfaces. Am I the only technophile who feels depressed at the prospect of waving his hands at the TV screen, trying vainly to get its attention? I’ve actually had a chance to experience this technology, and what I’ve seen has not been encouraging. If you have to repeat even one in ten voice commands, the feature is agonizing and unusable. Unless there’s been a huge leap forward (unlikely, considering current progress in basic chip technology), this stuff is ready only to be the next ‘3D’ — a useless, annoying feature that will make consumers glad only if they avoid paying for it.

Advancements in cars? Let’s be honest: the only advancement we really need is one that will eliminate cars. Allowing already borderline-psychotic drivers to dictate tweets at 120 kph has a certain sadistic appeal, but is unlikely to create a new economic boom. (Other than perhaps in the insurance industry.)

The most depressing prospect of all lies in home entertainment. The TV/stereo system has become stagnant, and is likely to remain so at CES 2013.

‘Smart TV’ is neither smart enough, nor usable enough, to excite today’s savvy, jaded consumer. TV makers persist in developing a dozen incompatible ecosystems, none of which will achieve a critical mass of apps, and all of which will only further confuse users who still don’t understand why they need five remotes to watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island. If you want to make it as powerful as a PC, stop pissing around and just make it a PC, or Android, or Mac. Anything less is just going to be disappointing. (Remember: we’ve all used PCs, Android devices and Macs. We do have an idea of what the minimum standard should be.)

Then there’s quad-definition. Quad-definitiion. When most couch potatoes still don’t know if they’re actually watching high-definition. And have no problem watching standard-definition content that’s been cropped top and bottom, or side-stretched almost out of recognition. Yeah, quad-def is definitely going to take off like a rocket.

What home entertainment really needs is for manufacturers to stand up to the content providers and telcos, and insist that they allow consumer access to technologies that are already almost old enough to be passe: video servers, non-realtime content (and, ironically, true realtime content as well), and full app-supported interactivity. Of course, that’s not going to happen. Sony fought and won the Betamax battle decades ago, but today there’s no champion to drive the industry kicking and screaming into the wild, uncharted… present.

Failing that, a more dismal alternative would be to give up on consumer electronics and simply target the 1%. Reuters already talks extensively about features and products that will mainly enhance the cars of the very rich, rather than ones that will enrich the lives of the masses. We could see the entire electronics industry give up on serving the hoi polloi, and move up-market, where there’s still money to be spent on meaningless frills. (If so, forget my previous sarcasm and look for quad-def to be the surprise hit at CES.)

In the lead-up to CES 2013, it’s more obvious than ever before that the digital revolution has been stalled in its tracks. On the one hand, by high-tech companies whose lack of vision is perfectly complemented by their lack of business guts. And on the other by entrenched corporate interests who’ve discovered that ‘holding back the future’ is a viable business model.