BlackBerry put on a pretty good show on Wednesday when it revealed the Z10 and the Q10, its first new smartphones in a year and a half. The demos were crisp, and the new BlackBerry 10 software looked clever. At the very least, it seems that BlackBerry has finally joined the modern smartphone era.
But despite my interest in BlackBerry’s new phones, I’m still worried about the future of the platform, and not merely because it’s been off the radar for a while. Looking at what BlackBerry did and didn’t announce, and what reviewers are saying about the product, gives me a few big reasons for concern:
Apps, Both Present and Future
BlackBerry deserves credit for having lots of apps out of the gate–more than 70,000, the company says–including some important ones like Twitter, Facebook, Angry Birds and The New York Times. Still, there are some big names missing from the list, including Netflix, YouTube, Spotify and Instagram. You can’t expect a new platform to have everything right away, though, so I don’t want to judge BlackBerry’s current app count too harshly.
It’s the future that I’m really worried about. What happens when the next Instagram comes out, and becomes a sensation on the iPhone and Android? Will BlackBerry be like Windows Phone–that is, just an afterthought in the minds of up-and-coming app developers? The good news is that Android apps are relatively easy to port to BlackBerry 10 (in fact, roughly 40 percent of those 70,000 launch apps are simple ports, ReadWrite notes), so RIM just has to convince developers to make a relatively small effort. We’ll see if they do.
Never Neglect Maps
The consensus among BlackBerry Z10 reviews is that its Maps app is subpar. The Verge complained about inaccurate data, and said the software couldn’t reliably find local businesses. CNet bemoaned a lack of features, such as walking directions, transit maps and street views. Apparently the software doesn’t even let you jump into the Maps app by tapping on an address or map in the web browser. That’s just basic stuff. At least the Maps app includes voice-guided turn-by-turn directions.
In any case, having a good mapping service isn’t just about telling you where to go. It’s about using your location to deliver useful information. Google Now, for instance, can warn you about traffic before your commute home, and Apple‘s Passbook can call up a boarding pass when you get to the airport. These days, a really good standalone Maps app is only part of the equation, and BlackBerry doesn’t even have that yet.
Voice Commands and Virtual Assistants
BlackBerry has added voice commands in its new phones, but the list of supported actions is paltry compared to what Android and the iPhone offer. You can’t ask for movie times, the weather forecast, directions, or things to do. You can’t tell the phone to start playing music, answer a trivia question, calculate numbers or set reminders.
You may argue that it doesn’t matter, that most people don’t rely too heavily on voice commands to begin with. I think that will change as these virtual assistants become faster and support more types of queries. They’ll also become more useful in automobiles–in fact, some car makers are now starting to integrate Siri–and they may some day play a big role in wearable computing, allowing you to communicate by voice when your phone is just out of reach. It’s still early days for this kind of technology, but Apple and Google already have a huge head start. BlackBerry, by comparison, is just getting started.
I’m not saying the new BlackBerry phones are no good, or that no one should use them. Like I said before, the software has some clever ideas, such as the Hub that combines all communications into one area, and the Balance feature that acts as a separate login for business use. But the smartphone industry moves quickly, and BlackBerry’s period of rebuilding has taken its toll in a few key areas. As with before, it’s going to be hard for the company to catch up.