Does BlackBerry 10 have a chance against Android?

Sean Carruthers

It’s been a while since people have been talking about BlackBerry without a slightly disappointed tone in their voice. However, over the past week the Waterloo-based smartphone manufacturer garnered a lot of attention when it officially changed its name from Research In Motion to BlackBerry, launched the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, and showcased new BB10-powered handsets. In fact, it got the kind of attention normally reserved for a launch from the other company with a fruit-centric name. But does that mean that BlackBerry is back?

Even though BlackBerry used to be the handset of choice a few years back (thanks to the company’s incredibly strong ties with business), the launch of the iPhone started to seriously eat into the BlackBerry market share. Then, with an avalanche of Android-powered smartphones pushing the iPhone out of the way, it left BlackBerry nursing its wounds with a single-digit market share…a low single digit market share at that.

Despite a number of attempts to launch new product that could get back some of the company’s previous buzz (such as the Storm handsets and the PlayBook tablet), there was always the perception that these were “me too” products instead of cutting-edge products. Worse, some were plagued with usability problems (Storm) and some just seemed to be missing key functionality out of the box (like the PlayBook, which wouldn’t do email unless you linked it with a Blackberry handset).

In short, many thought that BlackBerry had lost the plot completely. So for this new launch, the pressure was on…especially because the launch date had already been pushed back and many feared that a lackluster launch would have sealed the company’s doom.

Well, the reaction so far has been largely positive…if you ignore the punishment that BlackBerry’s stock took immediately after the launch event, anyhow.

Though it’s based on QNX, the same base operating system that powered the ill-received Playbook tablet, BlackBerry 10 has been given an overhaul and some powerful new features that are bound to be appealing.

The biggest thing you’ll notice with BB10 is that there’s no start button, like there is with most other modern mobile devices. Instead, you get started simply by swiping upwards on the screen.

The home screen will show something called “active frames”, which represent items that are running on the BlackBerry. And like previous BlackBerry phones, these new ones feature true multitasking, so you can leave an item running in the background while you check something else. (From a battery perspective this isn’t exactly a plus if you’re a forgetful sort, but it’s indispensable for power users.)

From the home screen, you can swipe to the right to get to the BlackBerry Hub (more on that in a second), or left to see the other home screens. When an app is running, you can swipe up on it to minimize it back to the home screen, and you can then close it entirely by tapping on the “x” found on the active frame. You swipe down from the top of the screen to access your settings…just like on Android, these days.

BlackBerry Hub is the phone’s new messaging center, consolidating incoming email from your various accounts, your BBM messages, and social media networks. Swipe down and you also get access to your calendar. Like previous models of the BlackBerry, you’ll know that you have incoming messages by looking at the flashing LED light on the outside of the BlackBerry hardware…including the ability to program different colours and flashes for different types of events, so you can tell at a glance if the notifications deserve your immediate attention. This seemingly simple feature is actually a huge plus, and it’s surprising that it’s not a part of most other mobile platforms.

Other parts of the operating system have added nice little tweaks, such as the camera’s Time Shift feature; if you’ve missed the perfect snapshot by a fraction of a second, you can use an onscreen dial to scroll backwards or forwards in time to a moment where, say, your subject wasn’t blinking.

There’s also the BlackBerry Balance feature, which allows you to use personal apps on your work phone, but in a separate profile that doesn’t have access to your sensitive work data (one of the biggest concerns IT departments have with Android and iPhone).

All in all, it’s a ready-to-go operating system that, unlike the Playbook, isn’t missing too much out of the gate. And then there’s the Z10 smartphone, with its ultra-sleek design made even more attractive by a user-swappable battery and additional memory slot. But are these things enough to push BlackBerry back into the big time?

One could argue that it’s way too little, way too late for the BlackBerry 10 family. After all, there have been other challengers over the last few years that haven’t made much headway against Android.

For example, HP launched an updated version of WebOS and several new pieces of Palm hardware that were extremely impressive…but shut the whole thing down when WebOS fell on its face.

Similarly, Windows Phone has been struggling in the marketplace despite an impressive user interface, great hardware from industry heavyweight Nokia, and the full marketing clout of Microsoft.

Even with the long odds, BlackBerry has a chance for a couple of reasons.

The first of these is that it already has an ecosystem partially built up thanks to BlackBerry World (formerly App World), and the 70,000 BB10-ready apps that are said to be ready for BB10-powered devices. There’s also a store with a lot of music and video ready for purchase and rental. (This wasn’t something that troubled WebOS when it launched; pickings for the device were incredibly slim at launch. Windows Phone wasn’t much better at the start.)

Second…and more important, is the BlackBerry infrastructure at the business end: BlackBerry has long been a known quantity at the enterprise level. Large companies still trust BlackBerry hardware and software…even as the company’s overall market share has waned.

Integrating new BlackBerry product into the workplace may seem like a safer bet for larger companies with a more conservative streak, especially with the BlackBerry Balance feature keeping the work and personal sides of an employee’s usage separate. (Despite the growing numbers of Android devices in enterprise thanks to BYOD programs, many IT pros remain wary of them interacting with workplace systems.)

It’s probably a tall order to expect that BlackBerry will suddenly become the new “it” thing again, which means Android will likely continue its dominance for the near future. But it does mean a possible turnaround in BlackBerry’s fortunes – it’s the first time in a long while that the company has had product that’s pretty close to what everyone else is offering, instead of lagging embarassingly behind.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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