BlackBerry 10 is about integration, usability

I attended the latest BlackBerry 10 Jam developer conference held in Bangkok last week. With less than two months until its official unveiling on Jan. 30, 2013, I found the company more open to demonstrating some of the key elements of its brand new operating system (OS), though, what it showed was by no means the final user interface (UI).

outlookforbb100At BlackBerry 10 Jam in Bangkok.

Here are my thoughts on the upcoming BlackBerry 10 platform based on what I’ve seen. 

Integration and flow
Unlike a traditional smartphone, key tasks are no longer kept within silos but are integrated across apps. All activities culminate at the BlackBerry Hub, which contains important information such as signal strength and time. RIM has exploited the multi-threaded capabilities of the underlying QNX kernel to let users “peek” or access the Hub from any app. If anything, BlackBerry 10 can be said as more “touch” than the iOS or Android platforms.

Social is also at the core of the new OS, and is deeply integrated into the platform. For example, photos and data harvested from social networks–including LinkedIn profiles–are automatically extracted and used to build a comprehensive user profile.

Other nifty touches can also be seen throughout the few default apps which were demonstrated. Before taking a photo with the camera app, drag the autofocus grid around the screen to set the focus correctly. Tapping on any part of the screen will capture a photo. And like the PlayBook, clicking both the up and down buttons also serves as a shortcut to snap a photo.

The virtual keyboard
Vivek Bhardwaj, head of software portfolio at RIM, talked about the virtual keyboard during one demo, where he highlighted the technology behind the new virtual keyboard. While not widely publicized or known, the superior tactile feel of a BlackBerry keyboard is due to the unique shape and size of each key.

As this doesn’t make sense for a virtual keyboard, RIM has instead emulated it by modeling an invisible layer under the virtual keyboard to better map physical key-presses to the intended symbols. Moreover, the keyboard will also learn and adapt based on the current context of what is being typed to deliver the same BlackBerry typing experience.

Bhardwaj suggested that users can master the new keyboard by simply “letting go” and typing. While a physical keyboard may still be superior to folks who “write novels” on their BlackBerry smartphones, some may actually find themselves typing faster on the virtual keyboard, he said.

App support
There is never any doubt that app support is the linchpin of any new OS platform. On this topic, Alec Saunders, who is RIM’s vice president developer relations and ecosystem development, promised the company is looking at the “largest number of apps for a first-generation device that the world has ever seen”.

While Saunders did not give any figures, the BlackBerry 10 platform is expected to launch with tens of thousands of applications. “Our goal is to get as many applications out in the store as we can,” he reiterated at a media briefing.

All these apps are not appearing magically either; developers whom I’ve spoken to at the conference agreed that putting creating a BlackBerry 10 app is a relatively simple affair. Programmers may want to read more about the development options for the BlackBerry 10.

When it launches early next year, BlackBerry 10 will be the newest and quite possibly the most advanced mobile OS. While this is no guarantee that it will ultimately succeed, RIM is at least doing all the right things on the development front. Indeed, the development team has been heard touting the new platform as “integrated, social and beautiful”. From what little I’ve seen of it so far, this is not an idle boast.