OPINION: When I interviewed BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis in 2006, about a year before the iPhone was unveiled, BlackBerry was still riding high; but Lazaridis was already talking about introducing new devices with "lifestyle" features to appeal to the consumer market.
Some of those new features included faster multimedia performance, expandable memory, integrated GPS, a smaller, lighter design and even a camera, which BlackBerry resisted to implement for so long because it feared it would pose security risks for its corporate customers.
But the company dithered as the iPhone was launched, followed by Android; and watched as both gobbled up almost the entire smartphone market. It attempted to release a touchscreen device, the BlackBerry Storm, in 2008 but the product bombed as the user experience and design were horrible.
Gradually the BlackBerry's smartphone market share eroded from over 80 per cent to about three to five per cent today as users traded to newer, app-laden touchscreen devices that could be used for both work and play.
The failure to act effectively on the changing winds in the smartphone market led to the ousting of co-CEOs Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. Today, under new leadership, BlackBerry has finally begun to move in the right direction. BlackBerry 10 and the new Z10 handset are enticing for consumers but also powerful enough for business users.
But is it too late?
With iPhone and Android phones selling in such huge volumes over the last few years, there is already a significant user base who have their apps, contacts and other content locked up in the Apple or Google platforms.
BlackBerry fanatics - the company still boasts almost 80 million subscribers worldwide - are sure to love the new devices, with physical keyboard enthusiasts and large touchscreen fans both catered for in the Q10 and Z10, respectively.
But for new users or those who have already made the switch to come back to BlackBerry would take some pretty special advancements.
Certainly, the revamped user interface of BlackBerry 10 is impressive. On the Z10 - the only device BlackBerry was comfortable properly demonstrating today - it is a breeze to switch between apps and multi-task using swipe gestures, rather than dipping in and out of apps and back to the home screen using a "home" key as is the case on Android and iPhone.
Additional menu items are viewed not by pressing a button but by swiping down from the top of the vivid 4.2-inch screen, while swiping up from the bottom of the screen allows you to cycle between your open apps. Another swipe lets you "peek" at new messages without leaving your current app.
The unified BlackBerry Hub, which tightly integrates social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, displays social media updates, emails and text messages all in the one place. Previously I have preferred to use stand-alone apps as opposed to unified inboxes, but BlackBerry's implementation - including handy filters - is solid. Swiping down while in the hub shows you upcoming calendar appointments.
Typing was always one of the BlackBerry's major advantages but it has never perfected touchscreen typing. The Z10's on-screen keyboard is very impressive and as the device gets to know your style it will start suggesting your next word as you're typing, with users only having to swipe upwards to, as BlackBerry says, "type without typing". It will even clean up your messages automatically if you forget spaces.
From my limited tests so far, the user interface has been extremely zippy; but it remains to be seen how it will fare after it's loaded up with dozens of apps, messages and other content.
As smartphones become increasingly similar - rectangular glass slabs with large bright screens - apps become a huge differentiator. BlackBerry has done well to convince developers to code or port between 70,000 to 100,000 apps to the new platform - including some of the best ones from iPhone and Android - before there is a single user to sell them to.
Still, Android and iPhone have almost 10 times as many apps, and BlackBerry is still missing several popular apps such as Google Maps, Instagram and Pandora.
Two interesting new applications from BlackBerry itself are Remember, where you can store and organise various media types from email to pictures to songs in folders; and presentation/video editor app StoryMaker.
The web browsing experience is quick and responsive from my limited experience with the phone so far.
In addition to the apps, content deals signed with the major movie studios and record labels should increase appeal for mainstream consumers.
BlackBerry has also been conscious not to alienate its heartland: CIOs now have the peace of mind that staff BlackBerry devices can be quarantined so that work is completely separate from the personal profile.
From the very brief time I had to play with the physical keyboard on the Q10, it's clearly top-notch, but the overall design of the phone still looks like older BlackBerry models. Even for business users, the touchscreen on the Z10 is fairly easy to type on while offering more screen real estate for web browsing and multimedia.
Aesthetically, the Z10 looks very much like a larger iPhone 5. It's solidly built, with the back of the device textured and rubberised. On the whole it's comfortable to hold, with most operations accomplished using one thumb thanks to the redesigned gesture-based user-interface.
The fact that BlackBerry Messenger now includes voice and video chat and, uniquely, screen sharing, is impressive. The camera app has been redesigned so you can "time shift" still photos, allowing you to cycle back and forward briefly between frames to ensure each face is smiling and not blinking. The 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and 2-megapixel front-facing camera produce high quality shots.
The Z10 features a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 2GB RAM and 16GB of internal storage which can be expanded by an extra 32GB using the memory card slot.
I have yet to test battery life but BlackBerry claims the Z10 will last an entire day, though The Verge said its Z10 review model died by 6pm after being taken off the charger at 9am.
It's unclear whether BlackBerry will have any luck regaining ground lost to Android and iPhone but, though delayed, it has certainly made a strong return with a well-differentiated, impressive proposition. It's either the start of a new beginning, or the beginning of the end.
Will you consider buying a BlackBerry 10 handset? Let us know in the comments below.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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