Showing Off BlackBerry 10, RIM Aims To Both Fit In & Stand Out

Having fallen far behind its mobile competitors, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion desperately needs its next-generation mobile operating system to be a hit. RIM pulled back the curtain on BB 10 today at its BlackBerry Jam developers conference in San Jose, showing off features the company hopes will pull it back from the brink of oblivion.

BlackBerry 10 has been in development for 18 months and the finish line is finally in sight. For years, the knock against BlackBerry has been that it was badly outmaneuvered and its aging OS has not kept pace with smartphone innovation. These points are pretty much beyond dispute. BB 10, then, is RIM's valiant, if fraught, effort to claw its way back into the market.

A Sweeter BlackBerry

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins showed off several new aspects of BlackBerry 10 intended to drum up excitement for the platform among mobile developers, consumers and enterprises. 

The first is a unified messaging interface called BlackBerry Hub, an always-on inbox that stores emails, texts, calendar, events and BlackBerry Messenger. Users will be able access Hub on BlackBerry devices from any app or the home screen by swiping up and over from the edges of the device.

RIM is also focused on maintaining its traditional strength in the enterprise. The BlackBerry Balance feature customizes the user experience between personal and work interfaces while providing security and data protection. RIM will also unveil a new version of its app store, BlackBerry App World, that is optimized for enterprise applications. Employees using BB 10 will be able to toggle their phone between work and personal use, with work settings controlled directly by their employer's IT department.

At RIM’s BlackBerry World conference in May, Heins unveiled BB 10’s predictive text feature, which the company hopes will revolutionize typing on mobile devices. Initial reviews of BlackBerry hardware's new keyboard were tepid. At today’s keynote, Heins showed off another new user interface feature called BlackBerry Flow, a contextual touchscreen feature that knows where a finger is touching on the screen and can be integrated across all BB 10 apps.

BB 10 will also integrate a feature called “active frames” that are essentially small, developer-customizable widgets that can live on the device's home screen. Imagine a cross between Windows Phone 8 Live Tiles and Android widgets.

Heins said that BB 10 is on schedule. It will go into beta test in October through RIM's carrier partners and will be released with new devices in the first quarter of 2013.  

Making Sense Of RIM’s New Approach

Seeing the interface of BB 10 during the keynote, several things come immediately to mind. First, BB 10 looks eerily similar to Android. The active frames are small apps on the home screen, just like widgets, and the app icons could be younger brothers of Android’s primary interface. Android critics initially charged that Google's mobile OS was a copy of Apple’s iOS (which may have been true at one point, but no longer). Can RIM win by copying Android? At least the BlackBerry interface will feel familiar to many users.

BlackBerry Flow and Hub are interesting, somewhat unique, features. These are not apps, per se, but part of the platform's architecture. That means they can be integrated into just about any experience that runs on BB 10, always present, always available to be configured to a developer’s application. These persistent user experience features will give BB 10 a feeling of differentiation from Android, iOS and Windows Phone - but they may not be enough to win users back to BlackBerry’s platform. 

The goal is clear: RIM needs to turn BB 10 into a modern operating system that is close enough to the competitors that it will not alienate users while adding distinctive functions that differentiate it from Android and iOS. Once that base is in place, BlackBerry can push its strengths: communication and security. It was no coincidence that Heins’s primary messages at the BlackBerry Jam keynote were Hub and Balance. Traditional strengths integrated into an entirely new user experience should excite the BlackBerry faithful, but it might be too little, too late to turn the heads of consumers and enterprises that have long since abandoned RIM.