We won’t see the first BlackBerry 10 handsets, the touch-only Z10 and the keyboard-enabled Q10, in Australia until some time in March. However, BlackBerry has already begun planning for future devices and enhancements to the BB10 platform. Here’s a glimpse at what it has in store, including the next models, when WhatsApp will arrive and whether Android support on the platform matters.
I’ve spent the past couple of days hanging out at a media familiarisation session for BlackBerry 10 at BlackBerry headquarters in Waterloo, Canada. People love themselves some BlackBerry round these parts; one local coffee shop even offers a 10 per cent discount purely for showing your device. These are some of the BlackBerry plans for the future that have emerged during the event.
1. Good initial sales figures. So far, BB10 devices have gone on sale in the UK, Canada, South Africa and parts of the Middle East. CEO Thorsten Heins wouldn’t reveal specific sales numbers, citing the quiet period before formal announcement of company results at the end of the month, but suggested they were strong despite the twin competitive towers of Android and iOS looming over the mobile marketplace.
“What we see from sales in the UK and Canada and Middle East is pretty encouraging,” he said. “The UK launch for us was the best launch ever for a BlackBerry product, by far the best launch ever. Canada was just pure rock and roll. We expected it to be good, but it was beyond expectation. That’s fair to say without giving away any secrets.”
“I have a lot of respect for the other mobile platforms out there, make no mistake. But getting the first indications from those markets, I feel very proud and confident that we made the right choice. I doubt we would have seen the same thing if we moved onto Android or Windows Phone 8. We would have just been one of many.” He returns frequently to this theme: “You cannot win in a mature market if you are me-too.”
2. Social networking options will continue to expand. Like its rivals, BlackBerry offers integration with social networking platforms so that notifications can show in its Hub central interface and apps can easily share information. Head of software Vivek Bhardwaj notes that this facility isn’t hard-coded to a specific single API, which makes expanding the facility easier. “This is all part of the development environment. Today it’s Facebook, LinkedIn and twitter, but in the enterprise it could easily be business applications. This is all something that third-party developers can leverage.”
3. Future models will keep the same silhouette. Much of the BB10 interface has changed, but the silhouette of the Z10 and Q10 is the same basic slightly-rounded rectangular shape as earlier models, and that’s likely to remain place for future releases. “We had found a really nice shape for it, and we didn’t want to give that up,” said Todd Wood, senior vice president of design.
4. Next-gen designs won’t see an Apple-like veil of secrecy. Apple infamously keeps a tight legal grip on its iPhone prototypes, often restricting access to just one or two staffers. BlackBerry has taken a different aproac. Striking a balance between keeping future design innovations a secret and getting insights from across the company has proven tricky at times, Wood said.
“We have to be careful. It’s such a big industry and there’s so much value involved. You can’t be loosey-goosey with it. But we’re very open within the company We have a huge beta program. It’s about finding the right balance for being open, which is a big part of innovation, because a lot of the best ideas don’t come from design. We test them inside and outside the company, and that’s where we have to be really careful.”
Plans for the next model already exist. “We’re always working at least one to three years in advance,” Wood said. “Overall, design is ahead of the product release curve.”
5. Tweaks for left-handed access The gesture-based approach in BB10 has generally been well-received, but one criticism is that the core gesture for revealing the Hub — swiping up then right — can be tougher for left-handed people. That may be made more configurable in the future, according to Don Lindsay, vice president of user experience design.
s”We have talked about it. We have discussed opportunities for the future. As any platform evolves, you start to identify particular needs for particular groups of people. It’s an interesting area but somewhat unproven. For us it’s an area of research.”
That said, Lindsay is reluctant to overly expand the range of supported gestures. “Simplicity is definitely the key With BB10, we really only have one gesture.”
6. Camera access will be added to the lock screen. The BB10 lock screen offers a range of information as a glance, but doesn’t give one-click access to the camera. That could change in a future release. “This is version 1 of home screen and lock screen interaction,” Bhardwaj said. “We want to be able to interact more and more.”
7. Using the space key to fast-fill email and web addresses A familiar trick for current BlackBerry device owners is the ability to use the space key to type the @ symbol in email addresses or the full stop in web addresses, rather than having to hunt out the specific Alt-key combination for those characters. That doesn’t work right now in BB10, but it may return following user feedback. “We’re considering adding the space shortcut back,” said Thad White, director of handheld software product management (White noted that email addresses were already simpler since the touch keyboard includes an @ symbol next to the space bar and hence doesn’t require multiple clicks.)
8. WhatsApp is on the way. The popular free messaging application has been one of the more frequent BB10 requests. Marty Mallick, vice president of global alliances and business development, said development was active on the product, though he couldn’t cite a specific release date. “For the most part, we’re talking in the next number of weeks,” he said.
9. Android won’t be crucial to the future of BB10. The existing Android player for BB10 makes it possible to quickly port Android 2.3 applications, and BlackBerry is readying a newer version that will enable Android 4.1. That provides a fast route for some developers, but vice president of developer relations Alec Saunders says he doesn’t expect the proportion of Android-based BB10 apps to rise much above current levels, where they account for about 25 per cent of the titles in App World.
“It’s always a funny one, because when you put an Android app onto the platform, you break the experience a little bit,” Saunders said. “Android expects there to be aback button, for example. For many vendors, what the Android player represents is an opportunity to test the waters. It’s a two-edged sword, because the quality of Android apps varies widely.
10. PlayBook’s successor is uncertain, but we’ll see more computing-centric devices and cheaper mobile phone models. BlackBerry has said that the PlayBook was key in persuading developers to adopt its new technology framework (it handed out 25,000 devices for free) and has promised that it will eventually run BlackBerry 10. There has been no direct word on a potential successor to the well-liked but little-sold tablet, but CEO Heins continually emphasised the idea that BlackBerry has to move beyond a communication-centric core (phone and email) to embrace the full potential of computing.
“We will be extremely aggressive in investing into the mobile computing domain. It will be an exploration; we will hit bumps in the road. This is why we built BB10 from the ground up. We could have built a BB8 device . . . we didn’t do this because we understood that if we want to create the future, we have to do something really dramatic.” (To emphasis the point, Heins showed off his first mobile from 1989, a model so large and heavy it required a shoulder strap.)
Heins also hinted that BlackBerry might license its platform to other players, particularly those looking to produce budget phones aimed at emerging markets. (Someone call Huawei now!) “There’s plans in place of how to do this and how to serve those nations It’s a question of the business model and of timing if we would do this [licensing].” It won’t be a speedy decision: :We’re probably not going to get there in the next six months.”
Heins’ demeanour is confident, but not arrogantly so. “We’re still not where we need to be — we’ve made fantastic progress, but we can never let ourselves stand still again.”
Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Canada as a guest of BlackBerry.