BitDepth#871 - February 05

Blackberry, formerly RIM, introduces the new Z10 and a new operating system for a new era of smartphones. Is it too little too late?
Blackberry begs a set
The new flagship of the Blackberry product line, the Z10, looks very much like the phone the company needs to chart a course off the rocks. Photograph courtesy Blackberry.

“May I have this dance?”
President and CEO of the company formerly known as RIM, Thorstein Heins, did not say those words at any point during his introduction of the new Blackberry Z10 phone at the launch last Wednesday, but he might have summed up vast swaths of his presentation with them.

The company he leads, now renamed simply Blackberry after its flagship product, finally introduced a phone it could legitimately claim to be competitive in the modern smartphone market, and now the company needs to woo people to step out onto a crowded dance floor with them.

The launch event, extensively live blogged and streamed, offered the fan testimonies of staunch fans as a preamble to the new product and operating system launch, testimony to the fact that the company has built strong loyalty to its brand and its devices over the years.
That’s hardly surprising. When data plans were meager, painfully constrained services, Blackberry’s backroom server voodoo made it possible to do real things using the Internet.

But the company missed the boat to a startling degree when smartphones evolved after the introduction of the iPhone and telecommunications companies began building out the infrastructure to support more robust data flows.
Bigger data pipes and more elegant usability struck swiftly and fiercely at Blackberry’s bottom line, and the company faltered badly in producing a phone that worked the way that users had come to expect.

At the local launch of the first Blackberry touch phone, I played with one for ten minutes and quickly realised that its designers knew what a modern touchscreen phone looked like, but hadn’t been able to capture either its elegance, feel or essential functionality.
From the look of the new Z10, that’s no longer an issue. The launch event for the new device and OS emphasise parity with existing platforms, competitiveness in features and some tweaks that Blackberry fans will appreciate.

It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a typical iPhone user needing separate profiles for home and work scenarios, but the feature plays off of Blackberry’s historical focus on business usability and security while embracing the reality that people use their phones for amusement as well.

There aren’t enough examples of this type of thinking in the new phone, and that’s not surprising either. There was a time when the Blackberry legacy was more important than it is today, and the company has wisely decided to place its product in the market that exists, not the one it once owned.

The new BB OS (based on QNX) builds on popular services, adding video chat, with screen sharing no less, to BBM for instance, but the company also made sure to get WhatsApp for its new phones too.
For users hooked on the Blackberry way, there’s the Q10 model, expected in April 2013, which has the familiar BB keyboard placed right below a smaller touchscreen.

Blackberry Flow puts a usable face on the new device’s multitasking capabilities while Blackberry Hub brings social media and other communications information together in an agreeable looking listing that you can access from anywhere with a simple swipe.
It’s arguable that the biggest special effect that Blackberry introduced for the new phone was the company’s new Global Creative Director, Alicia Keys who cut a sharp and knowing profile at the launch even as she stumbled through some clumsy banter about being unfaithful to the brand before being romanced back by the new products.

It was a surprisingly awkward moment in a presentation that until then had been the model of soothing reassurance that the Blackberry brand was back.
In photos and in the words of Blackberry executives, there’s enough phone here to keep existing BB fans happy and perhaps to woo the undecided who are curious about the phone’s mythos.

But beyond integration with Blackberry’s Enterprise Systems (BES) there isn’t much here to make an iPhone 5, Galaxy III or Lumia user jump ship.

Related: Archived stream of the BB10 launch

Z10 essentials: High definition screen, 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8960 dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, 16GB internal storage.

Pricing comparison: (16GB models compared, unsubsidized price in US$): Z10 - $599, iPhone 5 - $649, Nexus 4 - $349, Lumia 920 - $450, Galaxy III - $599

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