Executives at beleaguered smartphone vendor Research in Motion on Tuesday gave a peek at new features in the upcoming BlackBerry 10 operating system, and released updated development tools for an enthusiastic audience of BlackBerry programmers.
Executives hinted that the BlackBerry 10 operating system may be production-ready by year-end - the APIs to phone hardware and software features are now final -- and that the next generation of RIM smartphones using it may be ready early in the new year. The company has seen plummeting smartphone sales, especially in North America, as corporate users opt for Apple iPhones and iPads, and to a lesser degree mobile devices based on Google's Android operating system.
Speakers at the BlackBerry Jam Americas event, aimed at third-party and enterprise software developers, included RIM President and CEO Thorstein Heins, who's been on the job for just nine months.
Heins, and his subordinates, reiterated much of what they said at the company's annual user conference, BlackBerry World in May. At that time, they suggested that the new OS, based on the QNX real-time kernel acquired with RIM's 2010 buyout of QNX Software Systems in 2010, would be released with new smartphones sometime this fall. But RIM later announced it was delaying the release to early 2013 to give software engineers more time to get the OS right, and incorporate feedback from users and developers.
BlackBerry 10 is a complete break with the software that runs on standard BlackBerry smartphones. An earlier version currently running on RIM's tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook, eventually will be replaced with the same OS on the new smartphones.
At this week's event, Heins and Vivek Bhardwah, head of software portfolio for BlackBerry, demonstrated a bit more of the BlackBerry 10 user interface, using a prototype touch phone released earlier this year just for developers. They focused on a new gesture, dubbed BlackBerry Peek, that may well become iconic for the BlackBerry platform. The peek is created by pressing a thumb on the bottom of the touchscreen and then moving it up and to the right.
The gesture effectively "freezes" the application you're in, and moves it out of the way so you can see "underneath" it, to a context-sensitive starting point, in most cases what RIM calls the BlackBerry Hub. The Hub seems to be an integrated, and customizable, collection of contacts and notifications, spanning the user's communications channels such as email, chat, Facebook and other social networks.
You would peek under your existing app when a new red alert LED starts flashing to indicate a new email or post: you can release the app and deal with the message, or sweep your thumb back to restore the app you'd been working in. Officials stressed that apps in BlackBerry 10 are not suspended or shut down during this process: you begin where you left off, the state of your session preserved and active.
The demonstration was an impressive display of one-handed, even one-thumbed, interaction with the smartphone. And that fact may hint at RIM's screen sizing for the as-yet-unannounced BlackBerry 10 smartphones: small enough that one thumb can control much of your interaction with the phone.
But it also raises the question of whether end users who will have to learn new gestures like Peek, will find it as intuitive and "flowing" as Heins repeatedly claimed.
It may be: as shown by an almost throw-away moment in the demonstration when Bhardwah tapped with his thumb to bring up a dial-faced clock, pressed a glowing transparent circle, and rotated it around the clock face to set the hour. There were no additional taps, no text or number entry, no drop-down menus or selections. It was intuitive and smooth and simple.
Later Don Lindsay, vice president of user experience design, explained that Peek is one example of the new design priorities in BlackBerry 10, and of how this functionality is available to third-party software developers, not just to RIM's system-level apps.
BlackBerry 10 apps will fill the smartphone screen. Peek enables system-level information and alerts to be hidden from view, in effect, "underneath" the full-screen app. He also promised that RIM is changing the "start" experience for mobile users. Instead of pressing a button, and possibly unlocking the screen to check the time, users can press a thumb to the bottom of the screen and push up to wake "up" the phone, and automatically display time or other information. Drawing the thumb back down, just a continuation of the starting gesture, brings the phone back "down" into sleep mode.
Peek is also context sensitive: if you're reading an email, again in full screen, and the red LED light indicates a new notification, peeking will show you the underlying list of newest emails. You can deal with the new email and then return to your original one easily.
Developers at the Jam will head home with a bunch of new goodies, including the latest build of the BlackBerry 10 OS, and new beta releases of the full panoply of RIM development tools, including the native SDK and WebWorks for HTML 5 apps. There are also new interfaces unveiled for Bluetooth, NFC, camera capture, picture viewer file picker and other functions. RIM said the full range of developer APIs are not fixed and will not change "when we release our 'gold' SDK at the end of the year," said Christopher Smith, RIM's vice president of application platform and tools.
The company also released new versions of its Cascade Builder for UI frameworks, the Ripple HTLM 5 emulator, and a plug-in for Microsoft Visual Studio.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.