BlackBerry 10: Good news, there's still time to fix this disaster
The Z10 is hard work, a fair bit is missing, but not a write-off. Yet
First impressions If BlackBerry is to complete the greatest comeback since Lazarus, it all depends on how it can lure back former users as well as woo new customers.
Which means its fate hinges on BlackBerry 10, its new operating system and apps platform. BB10 has three things going for it. It’s technically sophisticated and well up to the challenge of multitasking reliably while drawing very little power. It has a radical user interface that’s full of good ideas, and it also benefits from hindsight.
There is an upside to leaving it very late: it’s called late-mover advantage, and this has allowed the-company-formerly-known-as-RIM to take note of features customers struggled to use on rival devices, and make sure its own OS is free of those difficulties.
However, the implementation of BlackBerry's new design ideas may confuse some stalwarts and present newcomers with a bit of a learning curve.
All change: the new Z10 (left) and Q10 (coming in April)
In practice, it's arguable whether the new Hub of incoming messages is more efficient than the Notifications pull-down tray found on Android and iOS - it certainly takes more work to glance at an incoming message.
In addition, true 'Berry believers will find many features missing from this first release, from sound profiles to nightstand mode to custom LED alerts.
And the biggest omission of all is like a submarine that hasn't surfaced yet: one of the key characteristics that "made" a BlackBerry - the BIS servers giving consumers end-to-end encrypted push email - aren't supported in the new platform. BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), not to be confused with business-friendly BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), is now largely used to power the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) network.
What this means is that for many existing users (in the prepay market, mostly) the email experience will be similar to that of a stock Droid device. This raises the question, "is it still a BlackBerry?" - and it's such a big question, we'll tackle that in a separate piece rather than in this overview.
This is all a bit unexpected
Last year, some folks at RIM walked me through the new system and I came away very impressed. The idea of applications as “cards” was implemented in the now deceased webOS, and BB10 is conceptually similar. Some Samsung devices have a split-screen view, allowing you to see (part of) two apps at once. What’s original in BB10 is that the message list is permanently “under” the cards. The BB10 Hub is like a carpet underneath all the other applications, which can be shunted aside with a gesture. That’s the idea, anyway. Much of what’s on show here is very impressive.
So what’s the problem?
The single most discombobulating thing about the BB10 design is the discovery that there is No Place Like Home. There’s no Home button to take you back to a familiar display and therefore no fixed point of reference.
Yes, the help screen refers to a Home screen (which I’ll come to) - but this is really a task-switcher. It's nicely accessible through a single finger gesture, but it is limited to just the eight most recently used apps. Confusingly,
RIM also refers to the adjacent application “launcher” grid as Home, but finding this requires another swipe of the touchscreen. Underneath, of course, is the Hub of messages. Certainly this arrangement succeeds in allowing you to peek at the message list quickly from any application - one of the BB10 design goals is allowing the user to "flow" in and out of messaging without making a great contextual leap. On that count, it works.
The new Hub - a plain old unified inbox, really
If this sounds straightforward, then collect £200 as you pass Go. You won’t have any problems. But if you unconsciously take your bearings from a home screen, or root your activities with a fixed reference point, you may struggle a bit. As I did.
In practice I found I was spending a lot more time moving things out of the way than I expected. This meant getting things done was taking longer, too. With almost all rival devices you can see an incoming message with one click. Yet in BB10, you have to perform a two-stroke gesture, which brings you to the Hub. But you still can't see the message. There may already be an open message which needs to be moved out of the way from the last time you used the Hub. Then you have to smack the collated view at the top of the Hub accounts list (which can't be sorted).
This is easy enough for
RIM BlackBerry to fix - the Hub can be assigned its own unique gesture to access. But why didn't anyone realise what a cumbersome process this is?
I’m inclined to forgive designers who try new things. Apple’s original iPhone design was perfectly justifiable at the time but now looks very Fisher-Price. Even with the addition of task switching and notifications, the application silos are quite cumbersome. BB10 is an attempt to unify three things: a launcher, a switcher and a messaging hub, and there are only so many ways to crack that nut. There will be a learning curve for some users, then, as they adjust to the new metaphor. It’s part of the package.
So what’s the Z10 like to use in practice? Here’s some first impressions from my experience.
The company has wisely not concentrated on gimmicks at the expense of its core strengths. RIM began life making two-way pagers, and despite losing half of its income it knows why people still choose BlackBerry: it excelled at messaging and thus it must continue to do so.
I was surprised, though, to find that the new system doesn’t pick up one's email although BlackBerry Enterprise users shouldn’t have any trouble. On every BlackBerry I’ve ever used, once you punch in your BlackBerry ID, you only need to confirm the passwords for your internet mail accounts, and you’re up and running.
Tech support confirmed to me that BB10 doesn’t do this. I had to manually configure the server settings and login details for each email account. I then encountered some inexplicable problems setting up IMAP access, but these were eventually resolved. Setting up a GMail Calendar needs to be done through the Exchange setup route, not the IMAP route, or you will only see emails. Windows Phone currently grabs the calendar using either configuration route. Nothing about BB10's email setup is remotely pleasant, with the device taking more than 45 seconds to verify each account - long enough for the screen to fall asleep and go black.
Something positive: The hardware doesn't suck
The Z10 device itself  is actually fine. It's not heavy but not too light. That goes for the design of the hardware, too. There’s no evidence of skimping, and there is no serious omission for an early 2013 phone - except, perhaps, HD voice calling, which isn’t supported. LTE and NFC are all present and correct. The screen and imaging are very nice, just not best-in-class. I got the sense that BlackBerry has left room for a higher-quality model in its product range; the company has done a nice job differentiating its premium Bold designs from the Curves, and a Bold surely awaits later this year.
BlackBerry also offers a few particularly strong features of its own. The on-screen keyboard is excellent, although it’s a little disconcerting to see it always showing capital letters. The
gimmick feature, first shown a year ago, of spraying word prediction suggestions onto the keyboard itself takes a little getting used to. It makes for a eye-catching demo to then "throw" one of these word suggestions up into the text entry field with a flick gesture.
In practice, I found it breaks the rhythm of typing. However, the word prediction is very good, and the first-choice suggestion is overlaid on the space bar in bold blue, so it actually integrates very nicely. Several reviewers consider the BB10 keyboard to be the best on the market, and it probably is.
You have to move things out of the way to see your messages
The user interface also makes use of a popup menu, typically giving a wider range of options. The invaluable "Mark Prior Read", a BlackBerry favourite, is there.
In 2010, BB OS gained universal search that, allied to a sturdy physical QWERTY keyboard, transformed the use of the at-the-time ageing system. Users could give up filing away data and sorting their apps into folders, for it was pretty instant to find any app, email or setting from the home screen. This is carried forward to the new operating system. Is it similar to Apple's Spotlight, you ask? Yes, but it’s either visible, or only one gesture away at all times. Searching emails is also much more sophisticated than rivals can offer.
Long-time BlackBerry users may miss one or two features. One is the decision to drop BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service) which transported messages between consumers. This may be a legacy system, and one that harks back to the days of 2G and similar low-bandwidth connections, but it had some significant advantages. BIS ensured users always had secure, up-to-date inboxes without draining the battery as the email traffic was encrypted and compressed ideally for lower-power networks. Now BlackBerry uses IMAP IDLE and ActiveSync to sync - or polling. This taxes the client device much more, and removes a BlackBerry USP.
One can argue that in an LTE world BIS had to be sacrificed to widen the appeal of BlackBerry’s devices to the general public. The company is sacrificing considerable revenues from BIS to widen the appeal. It’s a reasonable argument, but I can see stalwarts are already missing it - BIS was one of the things that made a BlackBerry unique. In fact, it's debatable whether a QNX-powered BlackBerry without BIS is any more a "real" BlackBerry than if RIM had chosen to build BIS into stock Android.
Stalwarts are already ruing the absence of the extreme customisation possible on BB7 today, particularly sound profiles, custom alerts, and shortcuts. Text expansion (typing ‘sc’ can expand into ‘St. Custard’s’, for example) isn’t implemented. I’m told the forthcoming BlackBerry Q10 - which has a physical QWERTY keyboard - will have shortcuts. Saving a search to a hotkey is very useful, and I hope that makes the release. But 'Berry owners who can today set up different colour indicators based on the type of incoming message will be disappointed to find BB10 doesn't implement that.
Evernote users should steer well clear. The system deeply integrates Evernote (and other freeform data managers) into the system - which is a nice idea. No separate Evernote application is needed, in theory - each Evernote notebook becomes a folder in the Remember app. However, the implementation is a disaster. All I could see was untagged notes, puked into an un-sortable alphanumeric list. I couldn't see my tags, let alone apply them for sorting. If you rely on Evernote, use another phone.
The new BlackBerry Link app - how reliable is it?
On the plus side, BB10 shamelessly uses the idea of linking together multiple identities for a person, and bringing in their online activity updates that rivals, such as HTC, offer, and that Windows Phone does particularly well. It’s a little clunkier on the Z10, I found. It’s one of the few times I experienced a "wait" icon.
I also found the new Webkit-based web browser to be much better than anticipated. It displays pages very fast indeed, and includes a nice distraction-free reader mode. It's not perfect - while rendering after loading many pages, areas of the screen go black for a fraction of a second. I only encountered one crash, and it offered to selectively restart my tabs, much like Firefox.
Battery life is acceptable (particularly if you turn off 4G) and call quality is fine, if a little tinny. The latest Apple and Nokia devices all support HD voice, and so really, should the Z10
It’s a strong smartphone - but strong enough?
While I was very impressed with the QWERTY-fied Q10, the Z10 highlights the immaturity of the new platform. I am surprised that for all the focus on usability, the Hub - in the state it's in today - makes you work far harder than you should. BB10 is a work in progress, and seems some way short of being complete . ®
This is a roundup of a few first impressions after a few days with BB10, not a device review. If you have specific questions about the Z10, I'll try and answer them in the comments below.