BlackBerry 10: What We Know So Far

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RIM via YouTube

Research in Motion gave us just a small taste of BlackBerry 10 in early May, but lately it’s been showing off a little more.

Crackberry, Engadget and The Verge all recently spent some hands-on time with an early version of BlackBerry 10 on Dev Alpha hardware. The software is still a work in progress, and the first BlackBerry 10 phones won’t be out until the fourth quarter of this year, but at least now we can at a general sense of how RIM’s next operating system will work:

Navigation Is Not Traditional

Instead of a simple app launcher, BlackBerry 10′s home screen is a series of panes that each serve a different purpose.

RIM

First, there’s a master app list, which scrolls vertically while keeping the dialer, camera and search button docked at the bottom of the screen. Swipe to the left from this screen, and you’ll jump to the next pane, where four thumbnail images represent currently-running apps. Swipe again, and a unified inbox–more on that shortly–slides into view.

Even when you’re in an app, you can jump back to the recent apps list by swiping up from the bottom side of the screen. Swipe to the left from within an app, and you can peak at notifications or–if you swipe a little further–jump back to the inbox.

RIM calls this concept “the flow.” Apps aren’t so much launched as they are layered on top of the home screen, allowing users to swoop in and out with gestures. I’m not sure how people accustomed to the iPhone and Android will respond, but at least it’s a fresh concept.

Unified Inbox: More Than Just E-mail

Usually when a company offers a “unified inbox,” they’re talking about a single view for multiple e-mail accounts. As Crackberry points out, the unified inbox in BlackBerry 10 shows all kinds of communications, including e-mails, text messages, missed calls and social network updates. This inbox is always a swipe gesture away, so it could be useful for constant communicators.

The Predictive Keyboard Uses Swipes and Taps

RIM via YouTube

Although RIM promises to make BlackBerry 10 phones with physical keys, the company is also working on a software keyboard with predictive text. Every time you start typing, word predictions appear above the next letter in the sequence. So for example, if you type “T-H,” you may see suggestions for “that” and “the” over the letters “A” and “E,” respectively. To enter the predicted text, you swipe upward from the next letter in the sequence instead of tapping.

RIM claims that over time, the keyboard will learn which phrases you typically use, so it can make better suggestions. The Verge’s Dante D’Orazio notes that this system, however interesting, poses a dilemma: “When you’re using this system, it usually guesses something that’s close to what you want to say, so it’s a decision: Do you want to use their words or do you want to use your own words?”

Fancy Photo Trickery

In an attempt to one-up the smart cameras in HTC’s One series and Samsung’s Galaxy S III, BlackBerry 10 phones will start snapping photos even before you press the shutter button, just in case the perfect shot was ready a moment before you were. After the shot is taken, users will be able to time-shift individual faces to eliminate blinks and fix smiles.

RIM via YouTube

The App Situation

RIM will get app developers started with Cascades, a framework that provides a common look and feel for BlackBerry 10 apps. Similar to Android and Windows 8, RIM’s OS will have a universal “Share” function, so any two independent apps will be able to share links, images and other data.

RIM hopes to entice app makers with monetary incentives–$10,000 is guaranteed for any app that makes at least $1,000–but that alone won’t guarantee a thriving ecosystem. Attracting third-party app developers will be one of RIM’s biggest challenges.

What We Don’t Know

RIM is still waiting to raise the curtain on much of BlackBerry 10. We still don’t know some crucial details, such as how RIM will make up for its lack of media and cloud services. The company hasn’t announced any final hardware yet, either. If RIM is going to launch BlackBerry 10 by year-end, the company only has a few more months to keep the details to itself.

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