Like any good show pony, BlackBerry 10's been trotting around the world, strutting the fairly limited elements of its known UI in an effort to court developers. The platform, without question the nail upon which RIM's fate and fortune hangs, had its big coming out party this past May at the company's showcase in Orlando, an event at which we also got to meet the Dev Alpha -- a glimpse into future hardware design -- and espy three main features of this new OS: camera, keyboard and app switching. What we didn't get, however, was any actual hands-on time with the software, leaving most members of the tech press to take Waterloo for its word.
Cut to the present and on this segment of RIM's dev-focused Jam tour, nearly two months later, we finally got a chance to cut through the smoke and mirrors of the company's polished powerpoint presentations to get some honest-to-goodness, up-close and personal time testing the software. So join us, won't you, after the break, where we'll delve into our first impressions of this Hail Mary in Motion.
RIM's principal architect, Gary Klassen, was kind of enough to furnish us with two devices running BB 10 and walk us through a short, intimate demo. To say that the OS we saw was anything but final would be a gross understatement. So far, the three key features the company's been confident enough to make public -- camera, keyboard and app switching -- are only mere elements of the still in-development UI and, as such, can't truly be relied upon to paint a complete picture of what the finalized end-user experience will be.
Clearly, the crown jewel of the BlackBerry brand has always been its physical QWERTY keyboard, so it stands to reason RIM would want a good amount of initial focus on BB 10 to laser in on how that distinctive BB hardware feature translates to a touchscreen-only experience. The layout is clear and unfettered, with each letter taking up an appropriate amount of screen real estate to accommodate even the chunkiest of fingers. If you've seen videos of it in action, then you'll be glad to know it functions just as simply and intuitively as it's been portrayed. Pressing on any letter summons a host of predicted words that will then hover over corresponding characters, awaiting your eager flicks. So, for example, if you tap on the letter 'W,' a host of word choices will pop-up, such as 'with' over the letter 'I' or 'were' above the letter 'E.' To add those words to the text box, you need only to swipe up. Given time to learn your particular linguistic habits, the keyboard will eventually anticipate your word choices in keeping with the context of your message. Deletion also take the form of a natural and, again, intuitive gesture, as a gentle swipe to the left will complete that action. To minimize the keyboard, you gesture much like you do on the PlayBook, swiping up from the lower left hand corner.
At the moment, the dev unit we played with didn't have haptic feedback enabled for this next-gen touch type experience and when we pressed RIM for comment, they weren't able to assure us as to its eventual inclusion in final production hardware. Whether it does make the cut or not, we don't think many users will notice nor care, as they should be far too busy acquainting themselves with the refreshing efficiency text input takes on in this BB 10 incarnation. We're not entirely convinced it'll win over devotees of the company's physical keyboard -- tactile responsiveness still trumps the thumbs-on-glass alternative -- but users accustomed to other software keyboards may find themselves swayed by the abbreviated number of gestures needed.
Understandably, RIM wasn't too keen on letting us go in-depth on an OS that's a far cry from the form it'll assume come later this year when it debuts. In that respect, we can't comment on how these disparate elements perform as a cohesive whole, but we did notice an overall fluidity -- a much hyped tenet of BB 10 -- to not only the keyboard, but transitions between applications as well. To the left of the main homescreen is where you'll find the app grid, a collection of dormant applications that have been downloaded to the device. Launch any of these and it'll pin to the main homescreen, showing up in a 4 x 4 layout with other currently running applications.
From here, Klassen was able to highlight the software's "flow" with a chain of connected activity: accessing the unified inbox, opening an email and, ultimately, viewing an attachment. By swiping to the right, he was able to trigger a sliding panel view of these actions stacked side-by-side -- all still running, all still accessible. It's this neatly displayed app switching that makes the process of backtracking through your workflow instantly perusable -- a must for the "crazy multi-taskers" that found nearly 50 percent of the BlackBerry user base, according to RIM's stats. And since the OS is designed to keep your experience uninterrupted, you never need to abandon active applications to view incoming notifications either. In fact, you can "peek" these alerts by shrinking your current window (dragging from the bottom right corner) marginally, at which point icons - be they for mail, calendar or BBM --highlighting your latest alerts will slide in from the right.
Where RIM will go from here is still anyone's guess. We pressed Klassen and the reps on-hand for details of what's to come, device form factors, a focus on optics and the fate of the physical QWERTY keyboard. As you might expect, our questions were met with tight-lipped grins, neither tipping us off to future reveals nor belying any doubts simmering below the surface. Naturally, the company's holding much of the BB 10 OS close to its chest, divulging only the elements that it deems fit for publication. And we can't blame Waterloo for being so paranoid and protective either, considering the mass internal turmoil that's beset its operations, BlackBerry's impending mobile evolution is one that will literally make or break this one-time wireless industry pioneer.