The BlackBerry, Rebuilt, Lives to Fight Another Day
I'm sorry. I was wrong. This apology is for the bespectacled student at my talk in Cleveland, and the lady in the red dress in Florida, and anyone else who's recently asked me about the future of the BlackBerry. I told all of them the same thing: That it's doomed.
That wasn't an outrageous opinion. The BlackBerry's share of the smartphone market is a dismal 2.9 percent, down from 85 percent a few years ago. Its stock has crashed 90 percent from its 2008 peak. In the last two years, the BlackBerry's maker, Research In Motion (RIM), released a disastrous tablet, laid off thousands employees and fired its CEOs. The whole operation seemed to be one gnat-sneeze away from total collapse.
RIM kept saying that it had a miraculous new BlackBerry in the wings with a new operating system called BlackBerry 10. But it was delayed and delayed and delayed. Nobody believed anything RIM said anymore. Besides—even if there were some great phone, what prayer did RIM have of catching up to the iPhone and Android phones now? Even Microsoft, with its slick, quick Windows Phone, hasn't managed that trick.
Well, RIM's Hail Mary pass, its bet-the-farm phone, is finally here. It's the BlackBerry Z10, and guess what? It's lovely, fast and efficient, bristling with fresh, useful ideas. (Read More: RIM Unveils BlackBerry 10, Changes Company Name)
And here's the shocker—it's complete. The iPhone, Android and Windows Phone all entered life with big feature holes. Not this time; RIM couldn't risk building a lifeboat with leaks. So it's all here: a well-stocked app store, a music and movie store, Mac and Windows front-end software, speech recognition, turn-by-turn navigation, parental controls, copy and paste, Find My Phone (with remote-control lock and erase), and on and on.
The hardware is all here, too. The BlackBerry's 4.2-inch screen is even sharper than the iPhone's vaunted Retina display (356 pixels per inch versus 326). Both front and back cameras can film in high definition (1080p back, 720p front).
The thin, sleek, black BlackBerry has 16 gigabytes of storage, plus a memory-card slot for expansion. Its textured back panel pops off easily so that you can swap batteries. It's available from all four major carriers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, for $200 with a two-year contract. (Read More: RIM in Day of Reckoning as BlackBerry 10 Launches)
Some of BlackBerry 10's ideas are truly ingenious. A subtle light blinks above the screen to indicate that something—a text, an e-mail message, voicemail, Facebook post—is waiting for you. Without even pressing a physical button, you swipe up the screen; the darkness lifts like a drape as you slide your thumb, revealing what's underneath. It's fast and cool.
There are no individual app icons for Messages or Mail. Instead, all communication channels of (including Facebook, Twitter and phone calls) are listed in the Hub—a master Inbox list that appears at the left edge when you swipe inward. Each reveals how many new messages await and offers a one-tap jump into the corresponding app. It's a one-stop command center that makes eminent sense.
The BlackBerry's big selling point has always been its physical keyboard. RIM says it will, in fact, sell a Z10 model with physical keys (and a smaller screen).
But you might not need it. On the all-touchscreen model, RIM has come up with a mind-bogglingly clever typing system. Stay with me here:
As you type a word, tiny, complete words appear over certain on-screen keys—guesses as to the word you're most likely to want. If you've typed "made of sil," for example, the word "silicone" appears over the letter I key, "silver" over the V, and "silk" over the K. You can fling one of these words into your text by flicking upward from the key—or ignore it and keep typing.
How well does it work? In this passage, the only letters I actually had to type are shown in bold. The BlackBerry proposed the rest: "I'm going to have to cancel for tonight. There is a really good episode of Dancing with the Stars on."
I type 20 characters; it typed 61 for me.
But wait, there's more. The more you use the BlackBerry, the more it learns your way of writing. When I tried that same passage later, I typed only one letter: the I in "I'm." Thereafter, the phone predicted each successive word in those sentences, requiring no letter-key presses at all. Freaky and brilliant and very, very fast.
There's speech recognition, too. Hold in the Play/Pause key to get the Z10's Siri-like assistant. Siri-like in concept, that is—you can say "send an email to Harvey Smith," "schedule an appointment" and a few other things—but it's slower, less accurate and far narrower in scope. You can also speak to type, but the accuracy is so bad, you won't use it.