To begin with, I believe the entire mobile and smartphone industry owes a debt of gratitude to BlackBerry for kicking off the whole mobile data device revolution in 1999 with its ingenious little push email devices that signaled the death knell of the pager.
This very thought ran through my mind at Mobile World Congress earlier this week when the CEO of AT&T Randall Stephenson tried to encapsulate the sheer step change that occurred when the BlackBerry came on the scene. “At the turn of the century a new dynamic occurred, we began to mobilise email and the world of mobile data began. We quickly began synchronising calendars and over a six-year period the amount of mobile data grew by 75,000pc.”
The first time I spotted a BlackBerry device it was in Florida in 2000 and I noticed a very elegant young woman jabbing furiously into a little square machine – I wasn’t sure if it was one of those massive mobile phones that were popular in America back then or an over-sized Tamagotchi.
But like most people it wasn’t long before the BlackBerry craze impacted my working life and those of many, many others – we were never out of the office, and you know what? We’re still never out of the darned office.
At its zenith, the success of BlackBerry contributed to a mental state defined by the term ‘CrackBerry’, as executives became addicted to the non-stop flow of information.
For anyone who cares about the history of the technology business, the demise of Research In Motion (RIM) in the face of Apple and Android’s ascent was painful to watch not only for the sake of its employees who were passionate about the platform, but out of appreciation for something that in many ways changed the world we live in.
Watching RIM’s then co-CEOs blithely dismiss the rise of new devices like the iPhone and then rush a clumsy response to market in the form of the BlackBerry Storm was a little like going back in time and sitting on the prow of the Titanic and shouting “iceberg!”, but no one would listen.
Under new CEO Thorsten Heins things have certainly changed. You get the sense that he has energised the troops, restored their faith in what is clearly a respected brand and if anything he has set in motion a series of steps that may see BlackBerry become the epitome of elegance, as well as practicality.
First of all, RIM is no more. It is now simply BlackBerry, which is fitting and right.
I spoke to BlackBerry’s UK and Ireland managing director Rob Orr at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week and he pointed to a number of achievements that helped to restore the troops’ motivation. “If you think about it, our apps store has 70,000 quality apps. That happened in just one year since Thorsten took over. I’m still amazed at that.”
On 30 January, Heins unveiled two devices with BlackBerry’s new operating system BB10: a touchscreen device called the Z10 and a sister device with the familiar BlackBerry buttons called the Q10.
The Z10 launched first in the UK more than a month ago and today in Ireland with O2, which has exclusivity on the device for the next month.
BlackBerry had a bit of a dilemma when it came to revamping its signature devices. It knew its technology was good, sound and secure – everything executives need for the devices they will carry. But it also knew it needed to redesign and make its devices more attractive without alienating traditional users.
In tackling both challenges I think BlackBerry has succeeded.
Physically, the Z10, which has a 4.2-inch display, is wider but lighter than Apple’s iPhone 5 and almost identical in size to the Nokia 820, albeit also much lighter.
On the left-hand side of the device is its micro-USB power adapter and an HDMI display port, while on the right-hand side are the volume buttons. At the top is the power/standby button.
The rear of the device is a tribute almost to the traditional look and feel of BlackBerry devices with an interesting dotted grip and BlackBerry logo – its 8-megapixel camera with 1080p HD is a jolt back to the present.
On the front of the device is a 2-megapixel camera capable of 720p video capture and the 4.2-inch screen is capable of displaying 356 pixels per inch (ppi).
One of the first things you will learn about the new BlackBerry – and I mean BlackBerry as a platform in 2013, not just the device – is that the company is very much on board with the idea of gestures, where you swipe in different directions to get where you want to go.
From the moment you switch on the Z10 you become immersed in the new way of doing things. Swipe up to get out of apps, swipe left to go back to your messaging hub, swipe down within an app and you are given extra options.
It has been at least five years since I used BlackBerry with any kind of regularity and in that time I have been using a hodge podge of iPhone, Windows and Android devices.
What impressed me most about the new BlackBerry Z10 was how its designers managed to make the device as current as any of these competitors in terms of feature and feel, and also succeeded in maintaining the original feel and usability of BlackBerrys from five or several years ago.
For example, inside the device’s BlackBerry Hub, which keeps all your email, tweets, Facebook notifications, LinkedIn notifications and more in one place, it doesn’t look any different to the format of email I would have received five years ago.
Again, this is not a criticism but actually praise because I know from talking to friends who were avid BlackBerry users and use devices like the iPhone grudgingly, they just want to be able to find their messages and to do so without always having to be logged into the cloud.
The next big factor about the device that will become apparent to new users is how fast it is. Astonishingly fast. It is powered by a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor on LTE-ready versions. In terms of memory it has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of Flash memory and it can be beefed up by an additional 64GB via micro SD card.
In terms of the new features, combined with the speedy processor, a very handy ability is once you decide to swipe out of an app or browser page a thumbnail is automatically generated to allow you to jump back into the app or page whenever you like.
This could be very handy when you are researching or trying to find out information, such as flight times/maps on the hoof.
I was also quite impressed with the Remember function which integrates with one of my favourite apps of all time, Evernote, and lets you keep track of text notes, voice notes, images and more in one place and if you want, share it out.
The Z10 comes with Voice Control, which is basically BlackBerry’s version of Apple’s Siri. It comes across as slightly slower, and slightly cruder, but it works. My best advice to new users is to make sure the app has integrated with your address books before using, otherwise it won’t understand your accent and may give you the wrong names to go with instructions like sending an email, a text message or searching the internet.
But having spent some time with Voice Control, I can see its merits – it actually searches your device for documents you’ve been working on, including audio Evernote files.
One of the magical reveals of the Z10 is its new camera feature Time Shift, which allows you to dial back the time on certain pictures to remove blots like a person blinking and find the moment when they are not blinking. Seriously, this is possible. You activate this mode by selecting the Time Shift option and then taking your photo – it then takes a series of shots rather than just the one and you can move back and forth between the shots to find the ideal one. This feature also works with the Story Maker app, which lets users edit together a film based on their photos and videos.
In terms of communications, the platform no doubt relies on BlackBerry’s robust and secure messaging service, as well as including its BBM messaging service, which is very popular as a free messaging platform.
The device comes with the usual Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities you would expect in a smartphone today but also HSPA+ and it is LTE (4G) ready.
I found its 1800mAH battery to be pretty reliable and I got about two days out of a single charge.
I think BlackBerry has a hit on its hands here. It will be a slow road back and I’m not sure if BlackBerry is ever going to reach those dizzy heights it enjoyed mid-Noughties, but the Z10 is going to win back a loyal but dispersed user base who miss BlackBerry for the entity it was.
The device will appeal to both gadget fans because it is not lacking in any sense in terms of appearance, features or capabilities, and BlackBerry traditionalists because its messaging system feels the same as it ever was.
BlackBerry’s revitalisation in just one year is encouraging. I detect a new sincerity and vision, and a simplification of strategy.
Bombastic ego has been replaced by humility, an appreciation of good design and a new work ethic, where delivering on promises on time is sacrosanct. Long may it continue.
The new BlackBerry 10 goes on sale in Ireland today and this month in the US. The device, available in black, will cost €229 on the O2 Choice 18-month contract and €559 on prepay.