The decline of BlackBerry has been well documented over the past two years, from its disintegrating market share and its public change of management to its wide lay-offs and the fact that it has now been 18 months between major product releases. Despite these setbacks, Research In Motion (RIM) has stuck to its guns, and forged ahead in designing a new operating system, something that its CEO Thorsten Heins hopes is recognised as being different.
"That's why we decided not to go Android or any other platform, because we knew with the QNX platform, with its multi-threaded real-time multitasking capability, that we could [create] a different experience, we could build a different platform that the market is so eagerly waiting for," said Heins.
"For now, it's a duopoly. It's Android, and Android equals Samsung these days, and it's Apple. But consumers want choice, carriers want choice and we'll be providing a pretty good choice in the first-quarter 2013."
This choice for consumers will come in the form of the BlackBerry 10 OS, the new platform and ecosystem that RIM has spent the past few years developing. This work has meant that RIM will not release any new flagship products in 2012, but it has also allowed the company to consider what the competition is doing.
"Five years ago, we all saw Apple introduce this application grid on a touchscreen, and Android used it as well. So when you want an application you hit the application, you do whatever you want to do, then you hit the back button and go to the next application. It's very sequential.
"The big change, the visual change for the user [in BlackBerry 10 OS], besides performance stuff, is the user paradigm, what we call the BlackBerry Flow."
The BlackBerry Flow is classic marketer's speak, describing the new multitasking capabilities in BlackBerry 10 OS. The default home-screen view is a multitasking area where up to eight apps can be running simultaneously. But swipe to the right, and you'll reveal the system's all-in-one communications area, the BlackBerry Hub, where Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn messages (among others) are listed amongst your personal and business email, SMS and MMS. Importantly, this area is completely customisable, and it comes with an open API, so developers can add notifications for third-party applications that will also appear in the Hub, if you want them to.
The Hub is accessible from anywhere in the system with a two-step gesture. Swipe up from the bottom bezel and the current screen minimises, revealing a count of unread messages. While still touching the screen, a swipe to the right drags the current window to the side, revealing the Hub below it. This gesture can be reversed at any time, giving the user the ability to "peek" at the Hub without exiting the current app.
"[The Hub is] not an app; it runs intrinsically on the device, it always runs, you can't switch it off, it's always there for you. So that wherever you are in the device, you can always go back to this Hub," said Heins.
"When we designed BlackBerry 10, what we really thought about how [the iOS UI] is not a flow ...This in-and-out paradigm was attractive when it was introduced, because it was very applications centric, but what users really want is to do what they need to do, without being concerned about which application they are using."
Having had the chance to test drive BlackBerry Flow briefly, the advantages of this system are immediately apparent, especially for users for whom communication is key. Being able to continue dialogues with a number of different contacts over a number of different message platforms, without launching and closing the same number of apps, will be a godsend for some. Being able to glance at incoming messages without interrupting your work in the current app is also a big plus.
But selling Flow will be a tricky task. The first phase of smartphone adoption has well and truly passed, and many of the potential market have now bought into either the iOS or Android ecosystems. BlackBerry 10 OS may be different, but it is going to be an uphill battle for RIM to tell this story in billboard ads and 30-second TV commercials. Unlike many of its competitors, RIM is choosing not to speak in the same language that many of its customers have learned to speak when shopping for smartphones: in megapixels, GHz and GBs.
"We're not in the spec race, we're not like six cylinders are better than four, we're in the experience race; it's got to be fun to drive a BlackBerry, if you want to put it that way," said Heins. "So on the technical side, we put in the horsepower that we need. But, for example, the screen resolution on the BlackBerry 10 device is going to be higher than on iPhone 5: it's 1280x768. Plus, we have a special picture processor in there, the image signal processor, that is a top-notch processor. So from a multimedia perspective, that device is absolutely on par. For browsing, it's a WebKit-based Chrome-like browser, with best performance for HTML5 ... outperforming anything else that is on HTML5."
It will still be several months before we see the final hardware, but if these promises of performance hold true, then the next wave of BlackBerry phones will definitely offer the alternative that Heins believes the market is eager for. Still, toppling the dominance of iOS and Android will take time, even with amazing new software and hardware, but at least the once-great RIM will be back in the race.