BlackBerry X: Initial Thoughts

Last week RIM released a preview of their new software, BlackBerry X. Normally my eyes would slide over the word “BlackBerry” like a greased weasel on skates, but something about the new release caught my attention. I had to do a triple take before I realized that, somehow, incredibly, BlackBerry X looked good. And the hardware they were using also looked good. I won’t really talk about the hardware—there’s not much to say. Ditching the physical keyboard frees them from the constraints of the plastic reality and the limited freedom of a hardware keyboard. The problem, though, is that RIM isn’t sure where it wants to go. They’ll still create a version with a physical keyboard—for the five people in the world who still like the physical keyboard. This also means that they can’t make any definitive call about having the keyboard or not. And at this point, RIM needs focus, rather than trying to appeal to everyone.

On to the software (because this is a site about software, after all). BlackBerry X features a pleasant amount of eye candy, but somehow still looks very professional. As a very satisfied iPhone user, the portions of the BlackBerry X interface seemed more polished somehow. The UI looks clean with a font suited for display. iOS uses Helvetica as its system font; while Helvetica looks timeless on paper, it is not as good on a display. The BlackBerry font is clean and modern, without being gimmicky or trendy. I noticed this in Android 4.0 (ICS), but I thought ICS had too much white-on-black. BlackBerry X keeps the clean look with more black- (and grey-) on-white. The UI elements look familiar but, again, clean and modern. Some of the icons are carried over from old BlackBerry, but other elements, including the rounded bars at the top of the screen, are decidedly iOS. Overall, however, I feel like BlackBerry X looks more professional—not button-down-and-suit-boring professional, but like the difference between metal and plastic. The iOS interface almost looks childish. I particularly like the ability to page through multiple screenfuls in a nav stack at the same time. It just feels more intuitive, and useful for those moments when you do a double-take (it’s happened to me more than you might think). Apple describes the nav controller as a deck of cards; you should be able to fan a deck of cards and peek at several. In the interest of simplicity iOS doesn’t allow this, but BlackBerry X seems to show that it works very well. It’s just not clear how exactly you’d invoke it.

The intelligent keyboard is the other major feature RIM has been touting. It uses “intelligent” algorithms to predict what you might be typing and with a flick up on the key of the software keyboard (another benefit to the software keyboard, and I suppose this feature won’t be available to the hardware keyboard model. Shame, really, that one of the major features won’t be available to a large portion of people who use BlackBerry (because they like the hardware keyboard)). The good thing is that it’s just one simple gesture—you’re flicking the word up to the text area. The negative is that it’s actually not that intuitive. When you’re typing fluently, there’s a sort of momentum in your fingers, in that it is often a lot easier to just keep typing than to use autocomplete or this new feature. Put another way, in the time it takes you to read the word suggestion, move your finger over and perform the flick gesture, you could probably have finished typing the word yourself. Only time will tell how well this feature works. I suspect a few people will use it religiously, and most will situationally appreciate it—rather like Siri on the iPhone 4S.

From what RIM’s released, I don’t think BlackBerry X will be enough to save the platform and company. But at least they’ll go out with a bang.

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