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Labour pains as BlackBerry reborn

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At the BlackBerry World conference yesterday, RIM CEO Thorsten Heins unveiled the first device running BlackBerry 10 ‚ but the rebirth it heralds still holds many labour pains.

It was hardly a Steve Jobs moment. But for the audience at the opening address of the BlackBerry World conference yesterday, the flourish with which RIM CEO brandished a prototype phone was a moment of Apple-style revelation.

It was the first device running the BlackBerry 10 operating system, long-promised, long-awaited and ‚ as far as the investor community is concerned – long overdue. When it does evolve into a consumer offering, it is likely all will be forgiven, so groundbreaking are some of its features.

The developer prototype, referred to as Dev Alpha, looks uncannily like an iPhone, but with a bigger, 4.2‚ screen. While no one at RIM is admitting it, that seems deliberate: by using a format that is associated with the cutting edge, and going beyond that cutting edge, RIM sends a signal that it can give the market what it is demanding, and more.

“And it works,”” Heins added after the applause for the device had died down.

RIM software head Vivek Bhardwaj joined Heins on stage to demonstrate what is probably a highlight of the Dev Alpha: a virtual keyboard that adapts to the user’s style of typing.

The shape of the keyboard, and even its positioning, alters subtly as it picks up on the user’s characteristics. The angle of fingers while typing and areas where fingers regularly miss the keyboard, for example, enable the device to ‚learn‚ how to be user-friendly to individual users.

Almost magically, word suggestions appear in the keyboard itself as you type, and a simple swipe gesture sends the words flying to the top of the screen, onto the document being typed. (see video at http://bit.ly/IqpvD1)

‚It is a learning keyboard,‚ Bhardwaj summed up the feature.

Heins explained that BlackBerry 10 was built around the concept of “”Flow”” between apps. It allows multiple apps to be opened at the same time, and a flowing movement between the apps through a swipe-like movement that Bhardwaj calls a “”glancing gesture””. Rather than flicking a screen-page aside, as with Windows Phone panes, the user can hold a thumb in the lower area of the screen and twist it sideways, not taking the thumb off the screen.

This, says Bhardwaj later, is the signature posture of BlackBerry users.

‚When you see the keyboard, you should be able to say that’s a BlackBerry.‚

Developers attending BlackBerry World were each given a Dev Alpha unit ‚ but running PlayBook 2.0 software instead of BlackBerry 10. Only senior RIM executives have the BlackBerry 10 version for now, and they are not letting the devices out of their sight.

Bhardwaj allowed Gadget to try out his Dev Alpha unit, and this writer found it profoundly different – and effective. The keyboard quickly figured out the nature of the content being typed, and predicted more than half of the intended words in a paragraph when only the first letter of each word had been typed. Around 15 keystrokes were needed for each 60 characters appearing on the screen.

Bhardwaj acknowledged that others had also made great advances in intelligent keyboard technology: ‚Microsoft did a lot of work in this space on a full keyboard. With Intellipoint, they recognised that everyone’s wrist and hand rests at different angles. We brought the same level of intelligence to this. As your thumb comes in at whatever angle, over time, it recognises that you mean to hit a particular key. To ensure you don’t mistype, it moves the keyboard up. In effect, there is a second keyboard underneath the main one that creates a personalised keyboard.

‚This isn’t something new for us, because we went through this for years to build a physical QWERTY keyboard. As the keys spread to the edges, they get slightly larger, because that’s how you fan your thumbs. Its the research we’ve already done, and now bringing to an all-touch experience.‚

On stage, Bhardwaj also demonstrated the device’s camera capabilities, most notably the fact that, as soon as the camera app is opened, it begins taking temporary photos in the background. If you’re not happy with the composition chosen for a photo, you can scroll back through the temporary gallery and choose the shot you would have liked to have taken. While this is in itself not revolutionary, the leap forward is that it allows a small element of one picture to be used to improve a similar, but flawed, picture in the series.

‚Our intent and objective was to build the next mobile computing platform,‚ Heins declared. ‚This is a new, revolutionary mobile computing engine.‚

In an unstated acknowledgement that RIM has been trying the patience of its customers as well as the market in general, Heins insisted that RIM had to take its time ‚to make sure we get this right‚ .

‚The big question was what platform we need to get BlackBerry 10 right, and trying to project this into the future and the next decade of mobile computing, For that, we needed to take a very separate route. We made a hard choice and took the hard route. Now the whole company is laser focused on delivering on time.‚

The deliberate mistake, of course, is that Heins did not announce a delivery date, so no one will know what ‚on time‚ really means. For many, the fact that the final commercial version of the device was not unveiled at BlackBerry World meant it was already too late.

However, releasing a device that is not quite ready would arguably have harmed RIM more than keeping the market waiting another few months. Heins hinted that BlackBerry 10 devices would come to market in the next six months.

Any later, and RIM’s rebirth will turn into even more labour pains than those that have shattered its share price. But if RIM can, to use one of Heins’s favourite phrases, ‚rock and roll this‚ , it will once again become a brand that scares the competition.

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