With Z10, BlackBerry jumps back into smart phone wars

BlackBerry posted a $98-million profit in its fourth quarter of 2012, surprising analysts who had expected the smart phone maker to report a loss as it launched its high-end touch-screen smart phone — the Z10. Its keyboard pops up only when needed.
BlackBerry posted a $98-million profit in its fourth quarter of 2012, surprising analysts who had expected the smart phone maker to report a loss as it launched its high-end touch-screen smart phone — the Z10. Its keyboard pops up only when needed.

Its name isn’t all that catchy. Its design isn’t all that stunning. But for BlackBerry, the Z10 might be its best — and last — chance to jump back into the smart phone arms race that has raged between Apple and Google for the last half-decade.

The Canadian company’s position in the smart phone world is awkward. BlackBerry, once called Research In Motion, helped pioneer many of the ideas and features that would become commonplace on smart phones: the ability to access email, a full-fledged keyboard built into every phone, and access to a nascent mobile version of the Web.

For years, it was a part of the businessman’s uniform.

That all began to change when Apple introduced the iPhone and Google’s partners delivered their first Android-driven products, which proved that phones also could be multimedia devices — capable of playing video and holding your music library. BlackBerry’s phones offered some of those features, but they weren’t nearly as capable as the competition. As consumers increasingly bought these new phones, BlackBerry found itself banking on its loyal business customer base. But those customers abandoned the company as well.

In short, BlackBerry finds itself today in the same position as IBM, which helped create the personal computer, in the early 1990s — largely relegated to the sidelines of a technological revolution it helped foment.

Enter the BlackBerry Z10, a black slab of a phone that is a bit larger and feels somewhat heavier than Apple’s iPhone5. Its screen is large, bright, and clear. It has the usual USB port, cameras on the front and back and — unlike the iPhone — the back cover can be easily popped off, allowing for easy access to the SIM card and battery. Physically, the Z10 looks and feels like just about every other smart phone out there.

And like just about all of the smart phones on the market, the Z10’s keyboard is a virtual one, only popping up on the screen when it’s needed. BlackBerry plans to offer the Q10, which will offer BlackBerry loyalists the physical keyboard they demand.

Both the Z10 and the Q10 are powered by BlackBerry’s new touch-based and much-delayed operating system, known as BlackBerry 10. It works a lot like its Google and Apple counterparts: Opening an app is a point-and-touch exercise, and you can swipe through different pages of applications with a flick of your finger.

The new operating system allows users to access multiple apps at the same time, just like your average Android or Apple smart phone. To switch between open apps on an iPhone, you’d hit the home button twice; with the BlackBerry, you simply swipe your finger from the bottom of the screen to the top, which brings up a screen with all the applications you have open tiled across it.

It has all the features you’ve come to expect from your smart phone: the ability to read PDFs, a maps application, and an iTuneslike program that will play and organize your music. The music program is a pretty thoughtful iteration of what’s become a standard utility: It’s well-designed and easy to use.

BlackBerry is even preinstalling some commonly used social-networking applications such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. However, the Facebook and Twitter apps aren’t as well-integrated into the operating system as they are on Apple’s iOS, which makes it harder to share Web pages and other content on your social networks.

Its app store, dubbed BlackBerry World, had more than 70,000 apps as of September — including apps from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, United Airlines, and Amazon’s Kindle. However, it still lacks a lot of important apps: The Washington Post doesn’t have a BlackBerry app, and neither do American Airlines or Southwest Airlines. Netflix and Instagram are absent as well.

In its advertising for the phone, BlackBerry has placed a special emphasis on the “Hub,” which puts all your emails, Facebook, and Twitter notifications, text messages, and phone calls in one place.

The upside is that it unifies all your communications in one place. The downside is it treats all these different forms of communication like it treats email, which is maddening in its own special way.

The BlackBerry’s digital keyboard also has a nifty auto-complete feature that guesses which word you’re typing based on the letters you’re punching in.

However, unlike Apple’s intrusive and annoying auto-complete feature, BlackBerry ghosts the suggested words just above various letters on the keyboard and allows you to pick which one you want simply by flicking your finger up. It’s another welcome advancement to a smart phone feature that doesn’t really seem to have been updated much in recent years.

These are great improvements, but they are improvements around the edges of a feature set that was defined by Apple and Google five years ago.

And herein lies the problem for BlackBerry.

Its Z10 is a more-than-competent phone and the operating system powering it is more complete than Apple’s or Google’s was when they launched them years ago.

But Apple and Google have continued to improve on their offerings, which means BlackBerry’s new phone and operating system fail to offer consumers a compelling reason to buy its product over the competition. And with its rivals as entrenched as they are, that probably means BlackBerry will remain a bit player in the segment it helped create.