Big news out of Waterloo, Canada today: Research in Motion has just announced via press release that it has set a launch date for BlackBerry 10, the company’s next generation mobile-operating system, which BlackBerry fans like us have been anxiously awaiting for many months.
BlackBerry 10 marks a clean break from RIM’s older BlackBerry OS, which first debuted at the end of the 1990s and initially powered BlackBerry pagers.
Though the existing BlackBerry OS was modernized significantly in 2011 with the 7.x series (all BlackBerrys currently for sale run the 7.x series), RIM has known for some time that it needed to start fresh with a more powerful foundation.
That’s why, in 2010, the company bought QNX Software Systems from Harman International. QNX is a proprietary, Unix-like operating system that is widely used in the industrial sector. Users of QNX include General Electric, Honda, the United States Postal Service, General Motors, Cisco, Land Rover, Chrysler, and Caterpillar.
QNX is especially popular in the automotive sector, as is evident from looking at the names of the companies I just listed.
It is very powerful despite being very light, or compact.
RIM began adapting QNX for use in mobile devices not long after it acquired QNX Software Systems from Harman.
The following year (2011), RIM released the first device running a QNX-derived operating system: the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. The PlayBook’s Tablet OS has seen several upgrades since the device’s debut, which have greatly enhanced its featureset and addressed most of the shortcomings flagged by reviewers.
Now RIM is bringing this new codebase to its smartphone line. On January 30th, the first smartphones running BlackBerry 10 will be publicly unveiled to the world. It’s not clear when the new devices will go on sale; however, it’s unlikely to be more than a couple of weeks following the launch event. Developers have had access to prototype devices running alpha and beta versions of BlackBerry 10 for several months, but the general public has not.
Two phones are expected to be introduced on the 30th. One will be a “full touch” slate phone, similar in form factor to the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S III, which are two of the top-selling smartphones in the North American market. The second will be a “QWERTY” phone with a physical keyboard for people like me, who can type a lot faster (and more accurately) with physical keys.
Specifications for the new phones are of course not out yet. But BlackBerry enthusiasts have high hopes for the hardware as well as the new BB10 software. The new phones are expected to have dual core processors and at least 1 GB of memory, perhaps more. The new devices are also expected to support 4G LTE wireless bands, the latest revisions of the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards, and Near Field Communication (NFC) in addition to older 3G bands like HSPA and EV-DO.
Historically, unlike Apple, RIM has designed its smartphones so users can upgrade their capabilities. For instance, batteries are removable and replaceable, and micro SD card slots are available to expand the phones’ storage capacity.
BlackBerrys also make use of micro USB for charging and transfer of data, obviating the need to carry proprietary connector cables. The new BlackBerry smartphones are expected to have these advantages as well.
RIM CEO Thorsten Heins has promised that important apps and features will be available at launch. BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, is said to be getting a significant upgrade, for example, while retaining compatibility for older devices.
But the heart and soul of the new BlackBerry 10 OS is undoubtedly the “hub” and “flow” user interface that the company has been demonstrating at its popular “Jam” sessions, such as the one held in San Jose in September.
The hub is essentially a conversation manager. In some ways it resembles the email client introduced with Version 2.0 of the BlackBerry PlayBook OS, with which it probably shares some code. The hub lets a BlackBerry user easily view and sort all incoming messages, whether they be emails, texts, emergency alerts, or BBMs.
The Hub also natively supports the messaging systems of all of the major social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) and provides a preview of upcoming meetings and events from the calendar. It can be accessed by simply swiping up from the bottom, and then over to the right.
Flow is the word RIM executives have been using to describe how the new BlackBerry 10 phones can be manipulated.
Traditionally, smartphones have been controlled by going to a home screen and calling up an application. But in BlackBerry 10 (as on the PlayBook), users can move between applications by swiping with a finger. There’s no need for a home button. It’s even possible to “peek” at another application without switching over to that application and giving it control of all the screen real estate.
It would be an exaggeration to say that RIM has totally reinvented the smartphone with BlackBerry 10. But BB10 certainly will break new ground with its user interface.
BB10 phones will also support technologies other smartphones do not – notably Flash. RIM collaborated with Adobe to bring Flash to the PlayBook, and it is one of the tablet’s strongest selling points. BB10 phones are supposed to support Flash as well. While HTML5 has partially displaced Flash, there are plenty of sites still out there that only offer video via Flash. With built-in Flash support and 4G LTE, watching a livestream or prerecorded clip on a BlackBerry smartphone will be as easy as doing so on a desktop or laptop. Or PlayBook tablet.
Speaking of HTML5, BB10 offers full support for the newest revision of the Hypertext Markup Language. RIM’s Tablet OS (for the PlayBook) currently bests all other tablets when it comes to HTML5 support, according to the Sights consultancy. BlackBerry 10, meanwhile, is tied with the open source Tizen OS in the larger mobile category for best HTML5 support. (Development of Tizen is sponsored by the Linux Foundation; Tizen is descended in part from Palm’s webOS).
It remains to be seen if the new BB10 phones can be competitive with the plethora of Android devices available, or the iPhone, in the United States. RIM’s reputation and market share in North America have taken a beating over the last two years despite remaining strong elsewhere. (BlackBerrys are extremely popular in countries like Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, which are growth markets). RIM’s big challenge is marketing. Once the new phones go on sale, RIM needs to be able to make sales in tandem with its carrier partners. More than fifty carriers are currently testing BB10, and Verizon, the largest U.S. carrier, has already indicated it plans to be a launch carrier. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile will probably follow suit.
We look forward to the January launch event and the future of BlackBerry. As a nonprofit that values security, privacy, and effiency very highly, we remain committed to the BlackBerry platform.
The self-appointed technology experts at TechCrunch, AllThingsD, and the New York Times may not be rooting for RIM, but we are.