The BlackBerry Z10 is the first smartphone to run the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 OS, rewritten from the ground up on QNX, the real-time operating system purchased in 2010. QNX runs various systems in hundreds of automobile models and also the BlackBerry Playbook, and its success on this next set of smartphones, from the touch-based Z10 to the hard keyboard Q10, could quickly determine the company's fate.
If that fate comes down simply to a phone, the Z10 will breathe new life into BlackBerry. It is a better mobile experience, practically from start to finish. It is (finally!) a modern-day smartphone, and BlackBerry has completely rethought the user experience, from the flow-full navigation, to its all-encompassing Hub, to its superior keyboard and more. For most of the common uses of a smartphone -- email, social media, Web browsing, a narrow set of apps -- the Z10 more than holds its own.
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The problem is, BlackBerry's fate won't come down to just the phone. BlackBerry 10 OS doesn't have nearly the application marketplace of other smartphone platforms (including, by the way, the legacy BlackBerry OS), despite recently surpassing the 100,000 app mark. It also doesn't have some of the gleaming new jewels of other devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S 4's eye tracking, or Nokia's Carl Zeiss camera technology, or Apple's Siri, or Google Now.
What it does have is a legacy of enterprise acceptance, backed by the company's world-class BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES), now extended in some particularly BYOD-friendly ways to the Z10, and even iOS and Android devices. BlackBerry also has a global footprint that cannot be underestimated. Those items alone could keep BlackBerry from fading into the night, but they aren't nearly enough to bring the company back to glory.
Just for comparison, the BlackBerry Z10 is slightly taller, slightly wider, slightly thicker and even slightly heavier than the iPhone 5. Its display, at 4.2 inches, is also bigger, its resolution (1280 pixels by 768 pixels) is higher (the iPhone's is 1136 pixels by 640 pixels), and its pixel density is better (356 pixels per inch vs. 326 PPI for the iPhone 5). Those aren't likely to be dealmakers, but it's safe to say the Z10 hardware is quite good, even if it's not nearly as thin or light, or with as big a display as the Samsung Galaxy S series.
The BlackBerry Z10 battery life was, in my testing, much better than that of the iPhone 4S, but that seems a bit like comparing the gas consumption of an everyday sedan to a Humvee. The iPhone is a battery guzzler. I tried to use both the Z10 and the iPhone similarly, and even attempted to drain the Z10 by running its map app constantly while driving, to no avail. The iPhone simply ran out of juice hours before the Z10.
The Z10's big differences come by way of navigation, and here BlackBerry has outdone itself. I gave up my BlackBerry almost two years ago, and have been using an iPhone and an Android phone ever since. It has taken me the better part of the week to get used to the Z10's navigation, but it's starting to make sense. BlackBerry uses the terms "peek" and "flow," and that's truly what happens -- simple thumb swipes move you between screens. Little pulls let you see how many new messages you have across all of your email and social media accounts, and then quickly jump to those messages. A swipe from the bottom wakes up the phone, or minimizes an app; a swipe from the top brings up a settings menu.
I had to spend a bit of time configuring my email displays -- turning off sent or filed messages, for example, or turning on the conversation view so that message threads were consolidated. These are things that iOS and Android seem to default to, and I found it to be a minor annoyance on the Z10. I could never quite get a clean, up-to-date view of my inbox, even after working with an analyst BlackBerry provided to work through some of my questions and challenges. This particular issue could simply be user error.
BlackBerry makes a big deal about its Hub, which is essentially a universal inbox that combines multiple email accounts, but also any applications that access the Hub API. These include messages within the typical social applications, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as text messages, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and voice calls. I also got alerts from the USA Today and The New York Times apps. It's a handy way to see everything, and the inclusion of accounts beyond email makes it that much better.
The BlackBerry 10 OS, like other smartphone OSes, shows screens full of apps, which I was easily able to organize into folders and rearrange as I would in iOS or on Android. However, BlackBerry also added Active Frame, a screen that displays up to eight running applications. These are supposed to be "live" applications, but other than The Guardian, I didn't see any of my minimized (widgetized?) applications displaying any changes in real time. But it was a more logical access point for running applications. By the way, any application that is registered with the BlackBerry Hub will receive alerts, whether the app is running or not.
BlackBerry crafted the original killer keyboard, and for its next act, it has created the killer touch keyboard. There are, of course, great third-party keyboards for Android. But that notwithstanding, using the BlackBerry Z10 keyboard was fantastic. OK, at the most basic level, it's just a touch keyboard and I fat-fingered plenty of messages.
But it places subtle word suggestions on top of the keyboard, and you just flick them into your message. According to BlackBerry, it learns your phraseology and its suggestions get better over time -- probably a week wasn't enough time, but I seriously wrote an entire sentence by flicking suggested words.
The phone also includes voice dictation, and it worked moderately well. I could dictate messages, call up a Web search, send a text message or make an appointment. Like most voice dictation systems, it wasn't always accurate. Voice dictation is available from the keyboard, the app, and pressing the play/pause button on the side of the phone.
One of my favorite little features is the integration of all of my outbound and social communication services. For example, when I look at an appointment, if it's with someone in my contact database, it shows me all of the relevant connections (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), and it shows me some of the most recent activity, such as any recent e-mail exchanges or LinkedIn messages. Unfortunately, it doesn't show that person's most recent Facebook status updates, for example, or recent Tweets, but it's still a handy way to see recent interactions in advance of an appointment.
Smartphone cameras get plenty of use, and at 8 megapixels (1.3 MP for the front-facing camera), the Z10's does fine. It also includes a nifty Time Shift feature that let me capture several frames and then pick the one where all of my subjects were smiling. I was able to edit my photos in the picture app, including applying various filters and effects, and then post them easily onto social sharing sites.
BlackBerry has obviously worked hard on its Web browser. It's nearly impossible to do any sort of actual benchmarking without creating cached, static versions of websites (the variables of what a page loads and what a network experiences one millisecond to the next cannot be fixed), but in casual use, side-by-side with various other devices, the BlackBerry either held its own or vastly outpaced its competitors when fetching Web pages.
When the browser came across sites running Flash, it gave me the option to turn Flash on, rather than just running it by default.
Now to the tough part: Yes, it's early days yet, but there are still far too many key applications missing to make the Z10 worth buying right now. Take banking: there's no Bank of America or Wells Fargo or any other sort of banking app -- if your money is in Emirates NBD, though, you're in good shape. There's no PayPal, there's no Amex. This is one of the major new conveniences of using smartphones, and the BlackBerry 10 OS must get some key apps here soon.
There are virtually no Google apps. No Google Plus, no Gmail app, no Google Maps, no Google Drive -- only Google Talk. There are Box and SugarSync, but no Dropbox (there is a connector). There's Cisco WebEx, but no Skype. There's no Evernote, but BlackBerry has written a connection from its Remember app and I was able to pull in all of my Evernote documents. Unfortunately, they're just listed in alphabetical order (I have hundreds), and the only logical way to find something is to use the BlackBerry Universal Search function (not a bad idea, I must say).
There are apps for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and they're quite well done -- the New York Times app is very similar to the iPhone version. There's an app for The Guardian, ESPN's ScoreCenter and CBS Sports. There is no Flipboard. There's Slacker, but no Pandora or iHeartRadio, no Fandango or Netflix. And so on. Name a category, and many of the major apps just aren't there. I didn't extensively test the BlackBerry Maps app, but it did bring me to a very precise and not-well-marked address in Chinatown in Los Angeles.
BlackBerry says that in the coming weeks we'll see apps from CNN, eBay, MLB at Bat, MTV News, Skype and The Daily Show Headlines, among others. Some of its 100,000 apps are Android app ports (a BlackBerry spokeswoman said that fewer than 20% are Android ports); BlackBerry has created a runtime for Android apps, and the company claims that 70% of Android apps are pretty much ready to run as is.
BlackBerry has made some significant changes in its enterprise support. For one, BlackBerry devices can use Microsoft ActiveSync, so they can connect directly to a Microsoft Exchange server (or Office 365) without going through BES at all. However, when a BlackBerry 10 device connects to BES, ActiveSync gets tunneled using BlackBerry protocols (and thus, it takes advantage of 256-bit, end-to-end encryption, as always).
BlackBerry senior VP for enterprise software Peter Devenyi said that BES uses a new set of protocols for this communication. Thus, BlackBerry 10 only works with a BES 10 server. The good news is that BlackBerry lets an enterprise run a BES 10 server on top of or alongside BES 5. In fact, you can manage BlackBerry 10 devices, older BlackBerry phones and even iOS and Android devices all from a single console. Android and iOS communication happens the same way: ActiveSync wrapped in BlackBerry protocols, all running over the BlackBerry infrastructure without the need for VPNs or opening ports on firewalls.
The BES server is, of course, free -- you simply pay for each licensed BlackBerry it manages (or Android or iOS device). More good news: the company is allowing a one-for-one trade-in for all of 2013. That is, for every BES 5 key an enterprise gives up, it can replace it with a BES 10 key at no additional cost. Naturally, BlackBerry wants to give all of its loyal customers a reason to quickly and cost effectively migrate users to BlackBerry 10.
One of the much-touted new features of BlackBerry 10 involves BES 10 and Balance. BlackBerry Balance has been around for a while, and it lets BlackBerry users keep personal applications and data separate from their work activities. Balance has been redesigned for BlackBerry 10, and with a simple swipe downward, you get the choice to be in personal or work mode. Each mode is clearly differentiated. Because our parent company doesn't run a BES 10 server, I couldn't test this functionality.
Balance only works when the Z10 (or other BlackBerry 10 device) is enrolled into the BES. Corporations can control what's in the work mode, allowing only the use of certain applications -- or enforcing the use of a set of workplace applications. There are two different BlackBerry Worlds, the app marketplace. Work applications contain a briefcase icon. There are applications, such as calendars and email, where all personal and work data get brought together, but there's no data leakage between these worlds. This container approach to separating data is very compelling.
The BES 10 management of iOS and Android devices uses the standard management hooks provided by each OS, but BlackBerry just announced that it is beta testing Secure Workspace, which will provide a Balance-like solution for iOS and Android. It is a closed beta for now.
Without some of the fancy features of other phones, BlackBerry's support for strong enterprise-class features is still its biggest standout. The company's recognition of the onslaught of other devices in the workplace, by way of direct BES support, bodes well for its general outlook and survival. But survival doesn't necessarily equal success.
When buyers decide on a new phone, it is less and less about the actual phone, and more about the overall environment they're buying into. In many ways, that environment is powered by a cloud (Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive) that collects and aggregates key user data (about location, music and other media, monetary exchange, browsing history, and much more), and turns it into something personal and possibly both dangerous and exciting: the phone as personal digital assistant. Look no further than what Google is doing with its Google Now service, which is, perhaps, the future of mobile.
BlackBerry has none of this, and it will live and die with BlackBerry 10, these new phones, and the hope that features like BlackBerry Balance, and the endorsement of IT, will win the day.
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