Editorial: Betting on BlackBerry (or hoping)

Carrying a BlackBerry Storm requires a certain capacity to face scorn with pride. You have to have a thick skin for pity, too. Also condescension. And incredulity. BlackBerry's reputation is in the gutter, but that's better than being down the sewer, which it was before RIM started showing prototypes of the BlackBerry 10. On the strength of an undeniably cool interface, the BlackBerry brand has clambered back up to ground level, where it sits in delayed-launch limbo. RIM is smartly spending the extra time exposing BB10 prototypes to the smartphone-using audience (and, crucially, app developers).

It is not only to escape scorn, pity, condescension and incredulity that I place an emotional bet on BlackBerry 10. More objectively, there appears to be clear and careful thought to identifying how current models fall short in today's smartphone landscape (admittedly obvious), assessing weaknesses in Android/iOS experiences, and targeting an imaginative feature set to both loyal and disenfranchised users.

It starts with a newly holistic approach to the mobile work-life balance. And there is that amazing camera thing.

Still Essential to the Dwindling Few

For most BlackBerry users, the phrase "it just works" has a different meaning from other smartphone customers. In my case, my Storm is a superb portable email box and a solid phone (Sprint). The Gmail app is outstanding, better than the web service in some ways. Apps generally? Godawful. My experience with BlackBerry World has made me want to hurl the phone against a wall and record its obliteration with high-speed film to relish in slow-motion and post to Vimeo.

Yet the BlackBerry remains my one essential mobile device among the ones I carry: iPad, iPod touch, non-Apple mp3 players and laptops. Its importance is mainly connected to work. And I hear the same thing from colleagues. Well, a few. And fewer all the time, because RIM's market share dropped from 11.4 percent to 8.3 percent between May and August.

By its eroding market position and lateness to the game, RIM has been driven to reinvent rather than iterate, while it has been forced to acquiesce to current popular standards. So perhaps its leaders can be excused for panicky hyperbole around its upcoming product. "We are at the beginning of a new era of mobile computing," declared CEO Thorsten Heins at the BlackBerry 10 live event.

I don't expect a revolution. But we might see a new era of respect for truly competitive, interesting products from a fallen leader.

Flow & Task

RIM has chosen the BB10's conceptual keywords carefully and effectively. The central descriptor of the device's interface experience is "flow." Touch screens are inherently more flowable than mouse pointing, so you might not think that "flow" is postmodern enough to revolutionize. Part of the answer is that BB10's touch gestures do seem more like a river than the iPhone's stepping-stone navigation. There is no home button and no need for one. Smoother entering and exiting apps is apparent.

Beneath the flowing surface, there is an attempted marriage of concepts and even lifestyles built into the operating system. Positioned in the top-line talking points at the live event was a steely ethic of "getting things done." Flow and Tasks are paired in an unlikely alliance that alleges to bridge the user smoothly between work and play, effort and ease. Tasking is chunky. It doesn't naturally go with flow. And flow doesn't have the rigid boxiness of performing tasks. Forcing the two to influence each other is shrewd and progressive.

Mashing up enterprise and entertainment is more than just a canny value proposition. Importantly, doing so potentially advances mobile device assumptions. The iOS App Store is almost totally given over to playing games and consuming things, as opposed to producing things. The BB10's productivity chops will depend on incoming apps, of course, so time will tell whether RIM's global developer tour is stimulating app creativity to match the task-oriented talking points.

In the meantime, as a pre-launch marketing setup, the promise of task/flow harmony is music to the ears of persistent BlackBerry loyalists. This is really a wake-up call to the inner children of corporate strivers whose phone experiences have lacked the playful delights of consumer-focused products. The iPhone is a consumer device, oriented to personal use. There is plenty of BYOD overlap into work, naturally. But for workplace wonks who value hard-bitten mobile email and physical keyboards over big touch screens and multiple Twitter apps, RIM seems to be stepping up as a champion that will make the two worlds collide. (Some information suggests that one or more BB10 models will have a physical keyboard. For the virtual-keyboard trims, some kind of predictive text brain will offer assistance. We shall see.)

Part of that work/play collision, paradoxically, is a segregation. This device, remarkably, will allow two different and autonomous profiles, Windows-style -- each with its own access, settings and apps. IT managers will love the ability to remotely wipe job-related segments, while end-users will appreciate keeping their personal stuff untouched.

From the demos RIM has provided so far, I see three features that could invigorate flow-hungry BlackBerry users, and might steal a bit of share from competitors along the way.

Partially Solving THE PROBLEM

Like global warming in an election year, nobody seems to be talking about mobile multitasking anymore. (Did I just compare a first-world technology detail to potential planetary ruin?)

RIM is poking hard at this. In the BlackBerry 10 live event, Heins spoke of "the in and out paradigm" and the exhaustion of constantly pressing the Home button. The problem rings true for me -- even if "exhaustion" is rather a dramatization, the continual backtracking to a home screen and rebooting apps that you might have closed down one minute earlier is wearisome. Heins is also right to bash the mobile OS leaders for lack of progress over five years.

BB10's solution (again, from what we can see to date), is a desktop that displays minimized running apps. These reduced apps convey some level of useful information at rest, and bounce open to full operation when touched. I can see this preventing some of "the old in-out, in-out" (bonus points to the first comment which identifies that movie reference), especially with relatively narrow apps like The Weather Channel. The day-to-day differentiating power of this feature will depend on its superiority (or not) to Android widgets. But at least it stakes new ground in the quest for true handheld multitasking, and certainly contributes to device flow.

Keeping Social Close

One aspect of the device's organization has two names bestowed upon it, the first (Peek) referring to the inverted-L-shape touch gesture used to reveal the ever-accessible BlackBerry Hub. The Hub presents a consolidated view of email, social, chat and calendar. Videos of The Hub in action remind me of MyPad, an iPad social manager. Putting the user's meeting calendar right up against Facebook is probably BB10's plainest expression of work and play combined.

Calling this service "The Hub" is telling, and demonstrates not only communication-centric device strategy (it's not called "The Nook," for example, or "My Social Corner"), but also a freshening of RIM's geekish sensibility (it's not called "The Communication Center").

OMG, That Camera Thing

Sometimes you get the most mileage from the least important, but sexiest, particulars. Apple knows this better than any company, and I well remember the overdone acclamation of iBook's graphic page-turning flourish.

BlackBerry 10's most provocative sex appeal is Time Shift, and is attached to the 8-megapixel camera. Take one snapshot, and in the background the camera is capturing several images in a short burst. If your shot didn't come out well, you can time-scroll to a slightly different one. Solving a subject's ill-timed blinking is the obvious use case, but I can also imagine grabbing better moments in fast-action settings.

Now, this feature might seem frivolous. But I'm here to tell you: If Time Shift were introduced by Apple at one of its live events, large portions of the discipleship would undergo Rapture and rise to the heavens.

Amazingly, you can apply Time Shift discretely to individuals within a shot, improving them (or not) by using different slices of time. Jeff Gadway, a marketing manager at RIM, told Jennifer Van Grove, "I can create a moment that never existed."

Which is exactly what RIM needs to do with the BlackBerry 10: Wind back time and insert a revised version of the company's role in the smartphone wars.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.