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BlackBerry's new look: Fresh, sleek, and misguided

RIM makes a big bet on a new user interface with BlackBerry 10 -- but ignores the services consumers want.

Thorsten Heins meets the press at BlackBerry Jam Americas 2012.
Thorsten Heins meets the press at BlackBerry Jam Americas 2012.
Lynn La/CNET

For all the talk of revolution at Research In Motion's developer conference this week, something about BlackBerry Jam Americas felt rather familiar.

Think of it this way: a once-mighty tech company, elbowed out of the smartphone revolution by Apple and Android, making a new push to get back into the game.

Amid high pressure to deliver, the company puts all its energy toward marketing the user interface -- a slick new way of moving through the operating system, giving users live updates on important events without making them dig through menus.

That describes the scene yesterday in San Jose, Calif. But it also describes Microsoft last year as it unveiled Windows Phone 7.

"Always delightful, wonderfully personal, and will help you get in, out, and back to life" -- that was the pitch for Windows Phone 7 at its launch event, and it's basically the pitch RIM is making for BlackBerry 10.

Microsoft is still plugging away on Windows Phone, and its best days might still lay in front of it. But it hasn't been a smash hit, not least because the revolutionary user interface it touted turned out not to matter much with consumers.

RIM -- which reports earnings later today amid severe doubts among Wall Street analysts -- may be about to learn the same lesson.

The Windows playbook
First, some context. WP7, as you remember, offered a radical reinvention of Windows Phone. Microsoft junked the stodgy old interface in favor of one called Metro. The core feature of Metro is "live tiles," those automatically updating quadrangles that show you things like Facebook updates, upcoming appointments, and more.

Windows Phone was a critical hit, praised for its clean and intuitive interface. It won carrier support and a key deal with smartphone giant Nokia, which agreed to make Windows Phones its exclusive smartphone operating system.

But a year and a half later, Windows Phone still struggles to stand out in the marketplace. The devices launched with significant bugs, and Microsoft quickly disowned early adopters by saying WP7 devices would not be upgraded to Windows Phone 8 later this year. How many Windows Phones have sold in the United States to date? Likely less than a million.

At BlackBerry Jam, RIM seemed to be following the Windows Phone strategy. (Some might say playbook!) Yesterday, in its best shot at convincing a skeptical press of the virtues of BlackBerry 10, the company mounted a two-hour presentation that concentrated on new features of the interface.

"Flow," as the new navigation theme is called, is designed to ease navigation between BlackBerry elements. A feature called "Peek" lets you access main features of the operating system by swiping up on the device's touch screen to see thumbnails of your open apps; hold and swipe right, and you can access a universal in-box for messages and appointments.

Don Lindsay, RIM's vice president for user experience and the best of the speakers RIM trotted out yesterday, likened the interface to checking a watch. You check your watch without thinking about it, he said; Peek should feel just as intuitive. By doing away with the home button and complicated task-switching interfaces, he said, RIM could help BlackBerry users become more productive.

It's a fine idea -- but it's also a small one. BlackBerry absolutely needed to refresh its interface. But as Windows Phone 7 showed, the smartphone game can't be won on interface alone.

The devil in the demos
Moreover, it's not clear the interface will even work properly.

"This is not an intuitive interface that one can simply pick up and grok how to use," my colleague Jessica Dolcourt wrote this week. "I constantly pulled up the keyboard instead of the hub menu by not putting my finger in exactly the right place, and I wasn't entirely sure how to navigate around."

Good luck selling that one to the over-40 set.

Even RIM executives seemed to be having trouble with BlackBerry 10. RIM engineers working to demonstrate Peek had to swipe up two or three times on their devices in order to invoke the device's features. Later, in a meeting with me and some of my CNET colleagues, RIM's vice president of platform had the same issue.

At a press Q&A, I asked RIM CEO Thorsten Heins why the demos seemed so balky. He assured me they were very close to getting it right.

But if I were developing for RIM right now, the obvious glitches in the operating system's centerpiece feature would give me pause. If your marketing pitch says you have the world's most seamless user interface, you have to deliver a seamless user interface.

Clouds on the horizon
Just as important as what RIM talked about yesterday is what the company ignored. Throughout the keynote, I couldn't stop wondering -- where's the cloud?

Cloud can feel like a meaningless buzzword sometimes. And as jargon it's overused. But the services it represents are very real in consumers' minds. In fact, increasingly it's how they're making their decisions on devices.

RIM actually led the way with cloud services -- BlackBerry Messenger was one of the first cloud communication tools to resonate with a large swath of users. For a time, it differentiated RIM from the competition. But Apple and Android devices have long since caught up.

Now cloud services from Apple, Google, and others let users access all their files for free with a single log-in; share photos instantly with friends and loved ones; post directly to social networks from inside the operating system; synchronize browser tabs across devices; stream music and movies from online storage lockers; and much, much more.

RIM hasn't revealed all the features of the new OS, so it's possible there are a few surprises in store. But from what we've seen so far, you won't be doing any of that with BlackBerry 10. And if that's the case, you'll miss it.

While the market leaders build features that engender goodwill with consumers, BlackBerry maintains its stubborn focus on the enterprise. A feature called "Balance" creates separate profiles for your work and personal life, so that sensitive work documents can't find their way out of the office. It's a feature you'll love if you're running an IT department -- and will shrug about if you're a consumer buying your own device.

You can't blame RIM for building for business: it's where it got its start, and it's still where much of the company's value lies. But in a world where workers are choosing their own smartphones, an operating system built for CIOs won't find much favor. RIM says it understands that, but BlackBerry 10 suggests otherwise.

During his keynote, Heins said BlackBerry 10 isn't even about moving to smartphones -- it's about the move to "mobile computing."

In a report this spring, Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg argued that computers are gradually being replaced by what he calls the personal cloud -- the collection of services, like photo-sharing and content streaming, that BlackBerry still won't offer. It's notable that Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry 10's spiritual ancestor, also struggled to offer cloud services -- and suffered in the marketplace as a result.

So when BlackBerry 10 devices start shipping early next year, don't be surprised if RIM's innovative new swiping gesture isn't met with another -- that of droves of former BlackBerry users, all waving goodbye.