First Impressions: BlackBerry 6 Software

Along with the BlackBerry 9800 Torch, Research In Motion debuted its latest operating system, BlackBerry 6. Can it beat Android and iOS?
There's a lot at stake for RIM. It has ceded market share to fierce competitors Apple and Google, each of which has brought significant changes to the mobile landscape. More than losing just consumers, RIM is losing enterprise customers to Android handsets and the iPhone, too. Can BlackBerry 6 stem the tide?


If you want a one sentence summation, here it is: BlackBerry 6 offers enough to help RIM retain existing BlackBerry users, but it lacks the sex appeal to convince Android or iPhone users to defect to BlackBerry.

RIM has done the most work on its home screen, and it borrows heavily from competitors Apple, Google, Microsoft and Palm. The home screen now holds more applications and content, and requires less digging around through menus and folders. There are a number of home screens that can be accessed via swiping from side to side, and they are all user customizable.

The apps can be hidden in a drawer that slides down to the bottom of the screen, leaving the home screen open so you can view your wallpaper.

One of the better additions is the notification bar. Similar to the way the notification shade works in Android, this bar holds all your alerts -- new emails, BBMs, text messages, missed calls, etc. Tap it, and it drops down to show you the details about those alerts. If you want to ignore them, just tap again and it slides back up out of sight. If you want to interact with any of the alerts, select the message that interests you and it will open.

The benefit here is that you can quickly see if any of the messages demand attention or can be ignored. You can do this without opening the full messaging, or voicemail, or email application -- it can all be done from the home screen.

Other neat UI tricks include the ability to tap and hold on the homescreen apps. Do this and you're presented with a pop-up menu of nine choices. This is a lot more interactive and fun to use than the old BlackBerry key (though it steals directly from Android).

RIM dedicated a large portion of its press conference Tuesday to discuss the Universal Search tool. Universal Search automatically scans the device whenever users start typing text from the home screen. Want to send a message to John? Start typing his name and his contact card will pop up along with other results with the word "John" in it. Press his contact card and BB6 asks you want you want to do (send him a text message, send him an email, etc.). Want to find a song in your library? Start typing "Breathe" and the device will show you Pink Floyd's track from "Dark Side of the Moon" along with any other content with that word. If Universal Search can't find it, it will offer links to other search services, such as Slacker, or YouTube, or Google.

Search is one of the biggest reasons I like the Android platform. Search is built into the home screen and is always available. That's often key when you need results fast. I am glad to see RIM taking it seriously with BB6.

RIM has made other changes throughout the OS. It is much more finger friendly and usable on a touch device. The icons are bigger, the software buttons are bigger, and there is more space between UI elements. These subtle touches (pun intended) really go a long way to making BB6 much better than BB5.x on the Storm or Storm2. The media player and camera have been overhauled, as has the menu system.

There's no doubt that BlackBerry 6 is the best operating system offered by RIM. The company stressed that they wanted something "fresh" yet "familiar" with its new OS. Despite the freshness, there is too much familiarity. I was hoping RIM would go further and push onto new ground. It didn't. BlackBerry 6 rehashes features we've seen before, and seen done better.

Will the 9800 Torch with BlackBerry 6 sell well for RIM? Sure. It's easily the best BlackBerry available from AT&T. But I'll be surprised to see many Apple iPhone or Samsung Captivate AT&T customers switch to the 9800.