The BlackBerry 10 operating system -- widely seen as the company-no-longer-known-as RIM's last chance to turn its sliding fortunes around and keep itself in the top tier of smartphone manufacturers.
The good news is that it's slick, easy to use, and looks distinctly different from any of its rivals. The bad news is that if you're not already a BlackBerry user, there may not be enough to entice you to step across the floor and go BB. True, there are some legitimate appeals for business, particularly relating to security, but with some firms allegedly holding back on committing to BB just in case the firm goes belly up mid-contract, there's clearly still quite a bit of convincing and reassuring to do.
So what do you get? Well, based on the full touchscreen Z10 (the Qwerty keyboard-packing Q10 should be with us in the next few weeks), it's a ground-up rebuild, stepping cleanly away from past incarnations to deliver something very new. New is a relative term here though. It might not look much like past BlackBerrys, but it clearly owes something to iOS's neatly structured rows of icons, rather than Android's jumble of shortcuts and widgets.
That's no bad thing in itself, but it's the swipe-based interface that marks it out as something else. BB refers to the system as "Flow", with the idea being that you flow between apps and pages, without hard back or home buttons to disturb the smoothness of the user experience.
You open the lock page by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, and can then brush right to left to reveal several pages of icons. When you want to come out of an app you slide up from the bottom again, and the app shrinks to an "Active Frame" (it'll show up to eight, four to a page) which you can then either close, or keep running so they're handy for later.
At the bottom of the screen when you're not in an app are three shortcuts, similar to the later Android layout, but this time it's phone, search and camera. There are some nice animated effects as one page of apps fades into the next as you scroll, which isn't terribly practical, but it does help it to look like a sophisticated, well thought out interface. Swiping down when you're within an app often gives you access to more menus or additional info. Counterintuitively, scrolling up when you're in the camera app won't switch it off -- you'll simply take a picture. To exit the camera you'll need to swipe from the left -- it's an unusual lapse in consistency that betrays just how new this system is.
It's all quite a leap from standard smartphone behaviour, and there's definitely a learning curve to get used to swiping in general, as well as its various subtleties. For instance, swiping only halfway up while you're in an app reduces the screen, and gives you a "Peek" at any messages you have waiting. You can then scroll right to instantly access your messages via the BlackBerry Hub. When you're finished you simply swipe to the left to access the app you were just in. Neat. Once you've got the hang of it, it quickly starts to feel very natural, helped by the fact that it's very smooth, with no sign of lag or jerkiness. We can expect to see at least some of this functionality appropriated by BB's rivals in the not too distant future.
Swiping left from the home screen takes you to the BlackBerry Hub, from which you can check and update your emails, texts, BBMs and social network. It's a neat solution that only requires you to enter your various account details to keep you posted.
Messages can either be shown all together as a single timeline, or you can view each of your different sources by pressing the Hub button at bottom left. Pressing and holding a particular message also brings up a menu of options from the right, including the usual reply, forward and delete, but also, flag, file, invite to meeting and search by sender or subject. Flick down from the top of the message list and you'll also see today's calendar entries. It's a very slick system overall, and well designed to save you extra seconds throughout the working day.
Regular users will be pleased to note that despite a bit of a facelift, BBM remains intact, though now BBM Video has been added to BBM Voice to unify all types of communication. All free of course if you're connected to Wi-Fi, though messages come off your data allowance if you're not, which soon clocks up if you're using video.
Keyboard, browser and Balance
The keyboard has something new too, with its predictive text that populates the keyboard as you type, with each word next to its respective next letter. When you want to use one, you flick it up to the typing pane and hey presto! Cleverly (and a little spookily) it will also predict new words before you've started typing them, based on what you've already written. Again, there's a learning curve, but it's very intuitive once you've got used to it.
The browser is neat and easy to use, with slide-in menus available to both left and right when you need them. It's very fast too, and includes a Reader option, that pulls out the text from a webpage and lays it out in clear, ad and banner-free ebook style for easier perusal. Flash video capability is on board, even though the format is on the way out and Adobe has said it won't be doing any more upgrades -- but at least you shouldn't have any trouble viewing sites that still use it.
Cascades is BlackBerry's new navigation feature, which helps you to multitask without having to come out of the application you're in. So if you're reading a message, you can pull it to the right to check if any new messages have come in while you've been reading, then release to flick back to where you were. In the calendar app you can pull to the right to show a bit of yesterday, or to the left to get a glimpse of tomorrow.
BlackBerry Balance is the feature that the company hopes will endear it to business users. This in effect allows you to have two phones in one, with your "home" details including calls, emails and web details, kept completely separate from your corporate identity, which takes its cue from your company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server and only shows the apps and info that you need for work.
That's a very neat option too, but then if a company already has mobile device management (MDM) software, the same can be done with pretty much any type of smartphone -- and in these days of BYOD, you still need to persuade the punters that a BlackBerry is the device they really want to use.
So far, for the most part, so good. But BlackBerry (don't call it App)World is the company's Achilles heel. Apps have the power to make or break the BlackBerry OS, and so far they've been a bit underwhelming. There are currently a little over 70,000 apps on there, which doesn't sound too bad, and it's certainly much more than you're ever likely to use. But with Apple and Google each offering ten times that number, it does seem a bit lacking.
So while there are many of the big boys available from BlackBerry World, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Angry Birds, but there are also a few high-profile omissions (so far), such as Spotify, Pinterest, Temple Run and many more. New additions are coming all the time, but there is the danger that BB may be at the back of the queue for any essential apps of tomorrow. The search options aren't quite as well developed as its rivals either, with no option to show the best free or paid-for apps separately.
Was it worth the wait? Yes -- just about. BB10 certainly offers a system that's distinctly different (the swiping) with some of the best elements of both iOS and Android. It's smooth and sophisticated as well as being very practical and easy to use once you get your head around the new way of doing things. It also has some attractive out-of-the-box security options for corporate users.
But whether it succeeds will be a bit of a chicken and egg exercise -- if enough punters like it, the apps will follow, but if it can't guarantee the level of flexibility and capability you get from a well-stocked app store, it's likely to whither on the vine, which would be a very great shame.