Joshua Topolsky
Joshua Topolsky
The Verge

BlackBerry 10: Can the device retain its loyal following without a keyboard?

Another day, another flailing tech company trying to get back in the game. Welcome to Research in Motion. And welcome to BlackBerry 10 — the next version of the company’s mobile operating system just unveiled at BlackBerry World, a huge gathering the Canadian phonemaker holds every year in Florida.

The story of RIM’s struggles isn’t really fresh. In recent months, you’ve probably read numerous stories about its CEO shake-ups, partnership losses and shrinking stock price. What’s different now, however, is that for the first time in a long time, the company has something legitimately new to show off.

Joshua Topolsky

An authoritative voice on technology and consumer electronics, Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor-in-chief of The Verge, a technology news and information Web site, and the former editor-in-chief of Engadget.  He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg TV and G4’s “Attack of the Show.”  A lifelong gadget enthusiast, Joshua used his first computer at age 6 (a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A), and has been breaking apart and reassembling gadgets since phones had rotary dialers.

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And that new thing is BlackBerry 10 — a complete rethink of RIM’s phone operating system that will be available later this year.

For starters, it actually looks like a modern operating system, something that can compete with the likes of Apple’s iOS or the latest version of Google’s Android.

The software shares some things in common with those operating systems, too. But it bases much of its interaction with users around the concept of “panes” of information that can be shuffled through by gently sliding the application you’re working with to the left or right. The interfaces for iOS and Android are built more around traditional icons.

Say you’re in a Web browser and get a notification that you’ve got a new e-mail. If you pull the “pane” of the BlackBerry 10 browser to the left, you can see notifications below it. If you swipe all the way over, you’re in your message list.

Swiping from the bottom of an app takes you back to a home screen that is populated with large tiles with real-time information, an interface that is reminiscent of the “live tiles” on Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

In fact, the whole operating system looks a bit like RIM put Palm’s WebOS, Android, Apple iOS and Windows Phone into a blender and cranked it to the highest setting.

It’s not messy, but it’s definitely familiar.

BlackBerry 10 was demonstrated to reporters on a full touch-screen developer device, making it clear that the company is moving towards virtual keyboard as its main focus for text input (though CEO Thorsten Heins emphasized that the company will continue to produce devices with hardware keyboards, as well).

A lot of work has gone into the new virtual keyboard on BlackBerry 10, and the software will now intelligently predict your next word and hover that option above an individual key. To add the predicted word to your text, you swipe upward.

The company has also made significant improvements in its camera software, allowing users to quickly edit a photo based on saved images grabbed just before and after you actually snap your picture. It’s a pretty neat idea that — at least in a demo video — looks pretty easy to use.

But course-correcting on software and making devices easier to use is only half the battle for RIM in today’s market. Customers are increasingly settling on either iOS or Android as their mobile OS of choice, with huge players like Microsoft still struggling to get a foot in the door.

And we’ve seen this story before.

A few years ago, Palm stunned the technology community with a new OS that was beautiful and intuitive, but the company’s efforts to gain a foothold in the market never quite took. Even if everything goes according to plan and the software is as good as RIM wants it to be, it doesn’t guarantee success.

Just having great software and ideas isn’t enough: You need carrier partnerships and third-party developer support that RIM simply does not have at this point.

At the event on Tuesday, Heins brought some software partners to the stage. But if his company was trying to elicit excitement from consumers, it didn’t get the message across clearly enough. Calling friends like Salesforce.com and Cisco up to the stage early in the presentation might have wowed enterprise-focused fans, but the gaming partners RIM showcased later on will be the developers who help see BlackBerry through its dark days.

And that gets to the core of RIM’s difficulties. As users pick sides in the modern mobile landscape, they need a hook, an entry point, a reason to be picked. BlackBerry 10 might be useful, beautiful, secure and fast — but so is the competition, and they have a five-year head start.

To win back fans, RIM is going to have to make people fall in love again.

But as anyone who’s ever tried to win back a jilted lover can tell you: That’s a pretty tall order when they’ve found someone new.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.

 
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