No new devices, but RIM talks up its virtual BlackBerry keypad

RIM won't have any new BlackBerry devices until much later this year, but it's showing off its new BlackBerry 10 OS and an updated virtual keyboard at its annual BlackBerry World conference.

RIM shows off its virtual keyboard at BlackBerry World.
Brian Bennett/CNET

ORLANDO, Fla. -- BlackBerry maker Research In Motion officially took the wraps off its new BlackBerry 10 software here at the company's annual meeting with customers, developers, and press. And it showed off some key new features, including an improved virtual keypad with added smarts for easier and more accurate typing.

BlackBerry 10 reference device RIM

Today, at its BlackBerry World confab, CEO Thorsten Heins took the stage to officially introduce its BlackBerry 10 software to developers. And in his first keynote at BlackBerry World as CEO of the company, he came to tell the faithful that BlackBerry 10 is on the way and it will build on RIM's strengths -- serving hyperconnected consumers with a device that makes communicating both fast and easy.

"We are committed to building our platform to make mobility even more simple," he said.

But the big news of the keynote was the early look at the new BlackBerry 10 software. The software, which has been in closed tests with a select group of developers for months, will now be available to all developers. To help spur developer interest and adoption of the new platform, RIM is also giving away prototype smartphones that run the new software to developers registered for the show.

As expected, RIM didn't showcase any new hardware here at the conference. The company says it will introduce new devices running the BlackBerry 10 OS in the latter part of 2012. But some rumors suggest the company may have new devices on the market as early as August. Heins said the company is taking its time with BlackBerry 10 to make sure it gets it right.

He was careful to point out that the Blackberry 10 Dev Alpha reference devices shown here will never be sold commercially. These devices are only for developers to test new applications using the new software. But executives believe that seeding the market now with devices loaded with the BlackBerry 10 software will ensure that there is a robust market of apps for its new BlackBerry smartphones when these devices are released later this year.

Heins was tight-lipped about specifics , but he hinted that the first devices will likely come with virtual keyboards instead of the physical QWERTY keypads that many loyal BlackBerry fans have come to know and love.

He showed off the new virtual keypad and said that it sums up the purpose of BlackBerry 10, which is to make communicating easier and faster. And he said that includes making typing even faster and easier to use.

"Typing really matters to our BlackBerry users," he said. "So how do we make the best keypad on the market even better on BlackBerry 10? This new keypad saves you time even on full touch BlackBerry. It's still about typing and getting things done. I love it."

While some BlackBerry fans may be disappointed to learn that RIM may ditch the physical keyboard in some new models, Alec Saunders, vice president of developer relations for RIM, insisted in a meeting before the launch of the software that BlackBerry users have nothing to fear. The new virtual keyboard is much improved in BlackBerry 10, he boasted, saying it's unlike any other such virtual keyboard offered by its competitors.

"We don't even call it a virtual keyboard," he said. "It's simply the next substantiation of our keyboard technology. It draws on what's core to our DNA as a company. And that's about making the BlackBerry a communication and productivity device."

Saunders claims that consumers are frustrated by the experience that's offered on the iPhone and Google Android devices when it comes to tapping out messages, whether they be text messages, e-mails or updates to Facebook or Twitter. The new BlackBerry 10 software, which was highlighted at the morning keynote event, offers smartphone subscribers an alternative.

Like other virtual keyboards, the one offered by BlackBerry 10 is intelligent, and it can learn a user's patterns so that it knows which words to suggest. But the BlackBerry 10 virtual keyboard goes beyond simply learning which words people use more often. It actually learns how users tap the screen. And it adjusts how it renders certain letters based on someone's typing patterns.

For example, if someone mistakenly taps the "R" everytime he means to type an "E," the software shifts its rendering slightly to the right toward the "R" so that "E" is registered instead of the mistaken "R."

Another helpful trick that's built into the new BlackBerry 10 software keyboard is that when it's predicting possible words a user might be typing it displays those words over certain letters. And the user can simply flick the word with his finger in an upward motion to send it into the display.

RIM has also aimed to ensure that heavy-duty BlackBerry users can tap out messages on this virtual keypad as quickly and effortlessly as they can with the physical keyboard. As part of that challenge, the company reduced the latency in displaying the letters to nearly zero. This allows people to quickly tap one letter right after another as they bang out messages.

Company execs showed off plenty of other enhancements enabled by the new BlackBerry 10 software. For example, BlackBerry 10 also has new software for the camera, which allows you to focus on a face but also rewind the picture to capture the moment that you intended. Michael Gartenberg of Gartner tweeted during the demonstration that it looks like RIM is focusing much more on the details rather than simply speeds and feeds of the camera and other components of the device.

RIM also showed how the new software handles multitasking. Heins said that it allows several apps to run in the background allowing users to page through apps without opening and closing each app at once.

And finally, Heins emphasized that BlackBerry 10 is not just software for smartphones or even tablets, it's a platform that can be adapted for many uses. He showed off how the BlackBerry 10 software can be incorporated into cars, enabling gaming for backseat passengers as well as getting updates for the car right over the air via BlackBerry 10.

"BlackBerry 10 is all about making 'BlackBerry people' more agile," Heins said.

Updated 7:20 a.m. PT: This story has been updated with additional details from the presentation and quotes from RIM's CEO.