BlackBerry makers Research In Motion (RIM) have high hopes for their next mobile OS - so high, in fact, they've skipped two version numbers and are leaping all the way from BlackBerry 7 to BlackBerry 10.
A big leap is exactly what RIM needs. The company's devices, once so ubiquitous among office-bound commuters, have taken a bit of a pounding in marketshare of late - and by all accounts, RIM needs to do something special if they are to catch up with their competitors.
BB10 is currently set to ship in October. To find out what RIM have got to show for the jump over BlackBerries 8 and 9 we caught up with Vivek Bhardwaj, RIM's Head of Software Portfolio, in London for a sneak peek hands-on.
Thumbs, Gestures And Flow: The Heart of BB10
According to Bhardwaj, the key to BB10 is "flow" - by which he means a bold new approach to gestures.
Bhardwaj said the entirety of BB10 will be navigable by a single thumb, and that unlike some modern devices it will be totally usable with one hand.
While RIM has already said it will produce devices with physical keyboards - the quality of which many still see as its USP - the alpha (not for sale) device we saw had no physical buttons at all.
From start-up the BB10 home screen is divided into quadrants which resemble live tiles familiar from Windows Mobile 7. We didn't get a chance to see those tiles updating, but it seems obvious they will pull in social media updates, pictures and other live information on the go.
From that screen you can swipe left-to-right to get to a more traditional grid of apps, or swipe right to queue up the ever-present unified inbox.
That's where things get interesting. For in a neat twist the inbox isn't really an app, but instead more of an underlying layer ("a dedicated view", in Bhardwaj's words) which gradually reveals itself as you pull across the screen.
RIM calls this gesture "glancing" - and that's what it feels like. A quick peek across to your messages, then back to everything else.
Similarly as you delve down into the app - first to a message, then to an attachment - you can "glance" back layer-by-layer, gradually revealing the messages underneath.
It means your messages, Twitter account, phone, and everything else is always accessible with a single gesture, either just to preview temporarily or to switch over and start working. And even in its early form, this seems to be a far more integrated - and frankly quicker - way to read and monitor messages as they arrive while doing everything else you do on your device. It's not Earth-shattering, but it's handy.
Keyboard: A Physical Keyboard, On-Screen?
RIM is convinced - and many of its fans seem to be too - that the physical keyboard is the jewel in BlackBerry's dented crown.
With its new touch OS, RIM wants to "bring the physical keyboard onscreen", Bhardwaj said.
In design terms they've done just that. The new BB10 keyboard looks just like its physical counterpart - right down to the shading and the gap between rows of keys.
RIM is also touting the new keyboard's ability to learn from your mistakes. Essentially it will figure out when you hit the wrong letter, and gradually mold the underlying keymap to redress the balance.
So if you hit "t" all the time instead of "y", the OS will increase the (hidden) size of the area applying to the letter "y" to compensate. It does mean other people will find using your phone more difficult - but you won't make so many typos.
The keyboard itself is based on TouchType's SwiftKey tech, familiar to many Android users, and it worked well in our limited test.
Other nice touches - swipe right to delete anywhere on the keyboard, swipe down to access numbers and symbols, and swipe up at word suggestions to power through sentences more quickly - also looked good in their early form.
Only the market knows whether a good keyboard is enough to get people excited anymore. But the attention to detail here is encouraging.
The Mobile Camera: A New Approach To Editing
RIM is also promising to take a new approach to mobile imaging in BB10 - but while in fairness it's still early days for the OS, we didn't get to see a huge amount of evidence of that.
The one feature RIM is showing off so far is a hybrid of image editing and burst capture, where a user can take a snapshot and then replace specific areas of the image after a few seconds.
(The idea is you can take a photo of a group of mates, and then swap out the one who forgot to smile with the cheesy grin they pulled a second later.)
Alas this feature is currently in video demo form only - we didn't get to test it - and it appears to still be in development.
RIM says it represents their effort to "simplify" image editing. But like the rest we'll have to wait and see.
Conclusion: Research In Perpetual Motion
Overall it seems RIM are heading in the right direction with BB10. We were impressed by what we saw.
However the underlying issues with its ecosystem - most obviously developer support - still have to be addressed, and it remains to be seen whether consumers will rally to take this underdog OS and put it back on the top of the pile.
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