Jan. 30, 2013 — -- It was 2008 and my BlackBerry Curve's BBM was overflowing with contacts. I'd plug away on the physical keyboard, quickly firing off messages and emails to my friends and colleagues. Back then, most of them had the same phone or another one of RIM's popular handsets, like the BlackBerry Pearl.
By 2010 that list of contacts was empty. All my friends had abandoned BlackBerrys for iPhones or Android phones. I did the same. What choice did we have? While Apple and other phone makers started making phones that did amazing things with rich applications and fast Web browsers, BlackBerry clung to its outdated phone software.
That is, until today. After delays and years of dragging its feet, BlackBerry is finally ready with its new BlackBerry 10 operating system, a complete overhaul of the BlackBerry you've known. Even the company name has been overhauled; no longer RIM, or Research in Motion, it's just calling itself BlackBerry.
Its first phone to run the software -- the BlackBerry Z10 -- starts at $199 on contract at AT&T and other carriers this March, and finally has the hardware to compete with all those other high-speed smartphones you see in people's hands. Can it be? Is BlackBerry actually back?
A Phone Designed for Software
"That's a BlackBerry?" "Where's the keyboard?" That's the main reaction I've gotten to the Z10. The phone looks nothing like the typical BlackBerry with a physical keyboard and almost everything like an Android phone or iPhone. It has a large 4.2-inch 1280 x 768-resolution display and a thin all-black body with a soft-to-the-touch back. It's not a beautiful or elegant phone, but it's well-made and comfortable to hold.
Powered by a dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM and AT&T LTE, the phone is something that some of the BlackBerrys of past have never been described as being: fast. Not only is it the fastest BlackBerry ever made, it gives even the best Android phones and the iPhone 5 a run for their money in terms of speed, especially when it comes to Web browsing. Unfortunately, that power shortens battery life, but it is fast.
In heavy use, the phone doesn't last more than a full work day. I was actually lucky to see it last past 5 p.m. on a regular day of heavy emailing, tweeting and surfing the Web. On the plus side, the back cover of the phone comes off, allowing you to replace the battery. The company will also sell a portable charging accessory, which contains a second battery for the phone.
Software with a Learning Curve
The basic, simple design of the phone is starkly contrasted with the uniquely designed BlackBerry 10 software. Forget everything you knew about navigating a BlackBerry with a trackball or touchpad -- this version of BlackBerry's software is all about swiping and tapping your fingers on the big screen.
As in the case of Apple's iPhone, the BlackBerry 10 operating system is built around pages of apps. Swipe to the right and you will see pages of your applications, swipe to the left while on the first page of apps and you will see your open applications, or what BlackBerry calls Active Frames. Apps are minimized on this page and you can see a snapshot of what is happening inside the app, similar to Microsoft's Windows Phone or Windows 8 tiles.
Swipe left again from that page and you're at the BlackBerry Hub. The Hub is a messaging portal where you can view all your messages in one universal Inbox, including your emails, BBMs, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn messages. You can log in to all those accounts when you first set up the phone. It's a nice and convenient way to manage your messages. And yes, the phone still has the blinking red light to let you know you have a new message.
If you'd rather not be distracted by your personal email, a feature called BlackBerry Balance will also allow you to separate work applications on your phone from personal apps. It needs to be set up by your IT department.
There are no physical buttons on the front of the phone and no back button, which was confusing to most people to whom I handed the phone. Instead of pressing a button, you use gestures to move around (or what BlackBerry calls Flow). To minimize or back out of an app, you swipe upward from the Blackberry logo on the bottom on the phone. Swipe up and then over to the left and you can get to the Hub.
It all becomes second nature after a few minutes and it is one of the easier ways to multitask on a phone, but it requires instruction at first.
Not one person I handed the phone to figured it out on their own. BlackBerry says they will be teaching users about the gestures via advertisements and marketing. However, one of my colleagues might have said it best: "Who wants or has time to learn how to use a new phone?"
A Keyboard to Rule Them All
There's one part of the phone that is actually easier to get used to than its counterpart on the iPhone, and that's the virtual keyboard on the screen. I know, the first reaction to a BlackBerry without a physical keyboard is "What's the point?" I've heard it from too many over the last week, but physical-keyboard lovers will have to give BlackBerry's software version a chance since I am convinced they will really like it.
The keyboard is extremely well spaced. BlackBerry even put in distinctive frets to separate the rows of letters and used white letters on black keys, much like the traditional BlackBerry keyboards. On top of that, the software picks up your mistakes and learns with you. As you are typing, small words appear over the next letter you might tap. If the keyboard guesses the word you want to type correctly, you can swipe it forward to put it in your sentence. It also learns your vocabulary.
I have been a long-time hardware keyboard user and the Z10 is the first software keyboard I've used that didn't feel entirely uncomfortable to me. While I can still type more quickly on the Bold's full physical keyboard, especially when not looking down at the screen, the software bests the options on the iPhone and many of the ones available for Android phones.
Maps and Apps
The camera, however, doesn't. The 8-megapixel camera doesn't take shots as crisp as the ones you'll get from the iPhone 5 or Samsung's Galaxy S 3, and suffers especially when taking low-light or macro shots. The autofocus is also slow to adjust. BlackBerry does compensate for some of that with a cool feature called Timeshift, which captures a few shots at a time when you're taking a group shot. Tap a face after taking a shot and you can drag a virtual knob to find the best frame and face.
The Z10 with BlackBerry 10 comes with many of the standard preloaded apps you'd expect -- photos, video, BlackBerry's BBM app (which now supports voice and video calls), important social media apps like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare, and a new Maps app. As Apple has shown us, building a Maps app from scratch is no easy task and BlackBerry's own Maps app fails in a lot of the same places. The 2-D maps are as bare-bones as they come, it's slow to zoom and missing are a lot of key points of interest (no ABC News and no 5 Napkin Burger). Even worse for BlackBerry is that there are no other alternatives in its app store. No Google Maps, though accessing it through the browser is snappy.
And that's one of the main reasons I found myself spending a lot of the time in the browser. Not because it is fast and provides a smooth browsing experience, but because the app store lacks a number of the apps I use the most. While BlackBerry World -- no, not a new amusement park -- will launch with 70,000 apps (compared to Apple and Google's 700,000), many of the ones I use on a daily basis -- Seamless Web, Instagram, Yelp, YouTube, Spotify, etc. -- aren't available for the new operating system. BlackBerry does have a number of the big players signed up, including Facebook, Twitter, Rovio (Angry Birds), Rdio, Skype and others, but many of the popular apps are simply not available for the BlackBerry 10 platform.
Additionally, some of the apps, like Twitter and Facebook, are just not as robust as the ones for the other phones out there. Both apps have bugs and limited features compared to the apps for Android and the iPhone. (For instance, you can't delete a Facebook post from the app -- something I was not happy about when I mistakenly posted something.)
As I was testing the BlackBerry, Twitter's new Vine app made its way to the iPhone. Vine isn't available yet for Android phones, but you can bet it will be coming to the platform soon. After that Microsoft's Windows Phone will likely be the next platform and somewhere after that will be BlackBerry 10. That's the unfortunate reality of BlackBerry's lost time.
The Z10 is a fully modern BlackBerry. It's fast, has a mobile browser that beats many of the others and an outstanding software keyboard. No, its battery life and camera are not as strong as the competition, but its bigger issue lies with the fact that it runs a brand new operating system. The new software does offer something different than the others, but overall it (the maps and other features like voice control) and its app store lack the robustness of Apple's, Google's and even Microsoft's offerings.
It's 2013 and it's going to be very hard for BlackBerry to build up that BBM list of mine again. BlackBerry might have caught up with the times, but so have we. BlackBerry 10 and the Z10 are the right steps, but it's going to take even more for it to bring those users back.