BlackBerry World 2012 is perhaps the most important event in the history of Research In Motion. If attendees, investors, developers and journalists do not walk away from the conference feeling confident that the company can turn it around with its upcoming BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system, then RIM might cease to exist as a top-tier smartphone manufacturer and software producer by the end of the year.
So what do you do when you are down, everybody is counting you out and the future is full of nothing except uncertainty? Rally the troops, promise great things to come, put your head down and try to make it happen. Plus maybe offer a gave a few glimpses of your next big thing. Is BlackBerry 10 the platform that will save RIM?
RIM CEO Thorsten Heins' message to BlackBerry faithful has been, “let’s rock 'n' roll this.” In his distinctive geek-laden German accent, it sounds kind of awkward but also oddly sincere. When talking about BlackBerry 10 at the conference in Orlando, Fla., he played up how cool some of the new features were, eliciting applause from the crowd when it seemed like it was warranted.
“It is so important that we get it right for you,” Heins said during the BlackBerry World keynote. “I promise to you that the whole company is laser-focused in delivering on time and exceeding your expectations. From the couple of things you have seen this morning, you see how deliberate we are in creating the BlackBerry 10 platform.”
RIM bought QNX, the backbone on which BlackBerry 10 was built upon, in April 2010. It did not have a product built on QNX until the BlackBerry PlayBook was released in April 2011. That product was really not fully complete until BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 was released in February 2012. RIM is so deliberate, it is falling behind.
Heins showed off only a couple BlackBerry 10 features on stage, with RIM's head of software portfolio Vivek Bhardwaj taking the developer alpha device through the paces. What they demonstrated was indeed interesting. One concept, called “flow,” has the ability to create cascading screens that keep discussions open and running in the background and can be accessed at a swipe. Another interesting feature was the ability to edit a photograph to a moment a few seconds before the picture was taken. We have seen this type of “pre-recording” of a picture a couple of times before, and it offers some very interesting results. RIM is calling this the “perfect moment” camera.
The biggest feature that Bhardwaj showcased was definitely the keyboard. BlackBerry is known for its physical keyboards - one reason that BlackBerry lovers warn that, “you can have my BlackBerry when you pry it from my cold, dead hands." Yet BlackBerry is in desperate need of creating a touchscreen device that does not rely on the physical keyboard. Efforts so far have been a disaster, such as the dual “capacitive/resistive touch” screen the company unveiled with the BlackBerry Storm a few years ago.
“We are going to personalize the keyboard experience for you,” Bhardwaj said. “We are using things like modeling algorithms to learn where you press every single key. It really becomes a tailored keyboard, just like a glove.” The keyboard is gesture-based and predicts what words you are typing, allowing you to swipe words from the keyboard into the text field you are writing in. Even considering the third-party keyboard providers like SwiftKey and Swype from Nuance, we have not seen anything quite like it.
RIM is going to need more than a cool camera feature, intuitive keyboard and a new communications user interface for BlackBerry 10 to make a dent in an ecosystem dominated by iOS and Android. Heins said multiple times during his keynote that RIM would reveal only a few of BlackBerry 10's features, perhaps hoping to wow the market when the operating system is finally released. The BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha device will be available for developers at the conference, and it is likely that more information on the platform’s operating system will emerge before it is launched later this year.
There is more to BlackBerry 10 than just smartphones and tablets, though. Heins shared the stage with a black Porsche that was completely connected through BlackBerry 10. This is a natural progression for RIM, as QNX was originally designed as an operating system that functioned in vehicles. Heins said that 60% of automobile operating systems are currently running QNX.
RIM is also working hard on developer issues surrounding BlackBerry 10. It will be important for the OS to have a robust application presence when it is released later this year, and RIM says it is creating a truly next-generation platform for developers. That includes its Cascades UI framework to create apps for the PlayBook tablet and smartphones, along with BlackBerry World distribution.
So what is the verdict? Have Heins and RIM effectively rallied the troops and created sufficient buzz for what BlackBerry is going to become?
Yes and no.
The little we have seen of BlackBerry 10 looks smart and intuitive, but it is hard to judge quality and performance in a pre-packaged keynote delivered to mostly loyal supporters. The PlayBook looked like a great device, too, until it was released and everyone realized that it was not quite a finished product. For BlackBerry 10 to win in an extremely competitive, ever-evolving marketplace, RIM's deliberate pace - which is costing RIM billions of dollars in lost smartphone market share - better culminate in the delivery of a fully functional and exciting platform.
If not, Heins’ first BlackBerry World keynote could also be his last.