BlackBerry 10 is slick, fast and strikingly different from Android or iOS and BB's new OS will be as crucial to the company's success as decent hardware
It's no secret that BlackBerry had lost its way. The once-winning company was still producing snappy pieces of hardware like the BlackBerry Bold 9000, but the operating software had become idiosyncratic, complex and unintuitive.
There were few apps – the new currency of smartphones – unexceptional maps and a slow browser. No wonder BlackBerry had lost ground to Android and Apple.
So BlackBerry decided to create a whole new system, incompatible with previous versions. And that meant starting the app count from zero again. That system, called BlackBerry 10, is almost unrecognisable to users of the previous OS, BlackBerry 7.
BB 10 was unveiled alongside the new flaghsip BlackBerry Z10 and the QWERTY keyboard-toting BlackBerry Q10 and is the first serious contender to take on iOS 6, Android and Windows Phone 8.
It offers many innovations, extra features and gesture control from the ground up. It has a somewhat demure look to it – business-like describes it – and that's not a surprise. But it means that some of the app icons, say, can look a little humdrum.
BlackBerry 10 OS: Features
First of all, BB10 accentuates the company's focus on email and communication with the Hub, a unified inbox that shows your emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates and more. You choose what's there and it's ready for you whenever you want it.
Gesture control is at the heart of BB10, so much so that there's no home button on the phone. You wake the phone without having to reach for a power switch on the top edge, you just swipe your finger up the phone screen and the screen turns on and unlocks. This feels intimate and satisfying.
Other swipes reveal active apps or give quick access to settings like orientation lock or notifications. It is a nimble but sophisticated set-up.
BB10 is great at multitasking, so if you're watching a snatch of video and you hear the sound that tells you an email has arrived, you simply swipe your thumb across the screen to glimpse the Hub – the official BlackBerry word is Peek. Swipe back again and you're where you were before, at the exact same point in the video. It's very smooth and fast.
BlackBerry 10 OS: Keyboard
The BlackBerry Q10 is due to land in the coming months, bringing with it a physical QWERTY keyboard – one of BlackBerry's standout hardware achievements.
But for now there's an exceptional virtual keyboard to be found in BB10 on the Z10. Predictive text, where the app guesses what word you're intending when you've entered a letter or two, is familiar enough. This keyboard predicts your next word before you've begun it.
The word appears on the keyboard between the letters. If it's the right one – and it is with a spookily high frequency – you flick it up and it appears in the text box. British software company Swiftkey does a similar thing for Android, but this just as effective.
BlackBerry 10 OS: Apps
Where the BlackBerry 7 OS had relatively few apps, and missed many of the biggest names, the new BlackBerry App World has much more to offer.
There were 70,000 apps available on day one, a huge number for a new OS, though still only a tenth of what Apple or Android can claim. Even so, there are many top-name apps available, like Skype, Twitter and Angry Birds.
The apps still aren't as cheap as they are on rival stores but the feeling is no longer of an over-priced and exclusive market.
BlackBerry 10 OS: BBM Video
In fact, maybe you don't need Skype after all. BBM – that's BlackBerry Messenger, the free instant messaging service that bewitched teenagers into buying BlackBerry handsets in their millions – now comes with video.
It's FaceTime for BlackBerry, then, and is simple to set up and use. You can talk to BB7 users but video is for BB10 customers on both ends of the line.
BlackBerry 10 OS: BlackBerry Balance
Now this is clever. It's meant for business users and it's enough to make IT directors the world over welcome BB10 with open arms. Effectively it divides your phone in two, creating a work space and a personal space. And between them is a wall.
It means that you can't accidentally (or deliberately) copy something from a work email and paste it into a personal one, or worse, on to Facebook. You can't even see your personal apps when you're in work mode – they're greyed out. It's very clever and may be enough on its own to restore BlackBerry's success with corporate customers.
BlackBerry 10 OS: Remember
Have you noticed how hard it is to find a decent to-do app on a mobile phone? There's Remember the Milk and the truly wonderful Clear on iOS, but there are few other options that are easy to use, intuitive and inviting. This is much less exciting than Clear but is usable and you can paste video and voice notes into Remember.
BlackBerry 10 OS: Camera
The camera software is great, especially because of TimeShift which takes a sequence of shots when you press the trigger. If there are multiple faces in shot, the software spots this. Then, and this is the clever bit, if your mum was blinking in the first shot and your brother gurning in all but the last, you can choose the good bit from different shots and combine them. An end to eyes-shut portraits!
BlackBerry 10 OS: Performance
This is a nippy OS – it's hardware-dependent, of course, and the only hardware so far is the Z10 but it certainly works at speed here. The browser is hugely improved and builds pages speedily. Despite the complex and rich multi-tasking of which BlackBerry is so proud, there's no noticeable slowdown. It all adds up to a new and powerful operating system that deserves to do well.
Some elements still need tweaking to improve performance, though. For instance, if you're reading an email, there's no way to swipe to the next one, as there in in BB7. Here, you must go back to the email folder and choose the next one you want to read from there. That slows you down more than anything else in the system.
BlackBerry 10 OS: Verdict
This new software is fast, innovative and a world away from yesterday's quirky BlackBerry experience. There are elements which need to be adjusted and the company still needs to attract a lot more apps and fast – you'll find a favourite or two is missing.
Even so, 70,000 at day one is a great achievement and a solid foundation to build from. Whether this new system will be enough to help BlackBerry find its way again, it's too early to say, but it's certainly the best BlackBerry software yet. And in some ways (gesture controls to the max, BlackBerry Balance, the Hub) this is cutting-edge, industry-leading stuff.
BlackBerry 10 OS release date: Out now
BlackBerry 10 OS price: Free