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Behind the scenes: The making of BlackBerry 10
It was snowing when we arrived at the BlackBerry campus in Waterloo, on a bitterly cold winter day. There were icicles under the bus, and the bare trees and snow-covered fields turned Canada black and white. We were visiting BlackBerry’s home ground to hear the story behind BlackBerry 10, the company’s new operating system and the engine it hopes to power a dramatic turnaround. Two years of work had just ended, and the company was ready to talk about what it had done, how it had done it, and where it wanted to go.
CEO Thorsten Heins was uncharacteristically ebullient. “You’re seeing us at a very exciting time. You’ve seen what we’ve been through, to get to a new platform with the launch done, working a real time transition. It’s been two years of hard work, staying relevant with BlackBerry 6 and 7, while we were building a whole new platform under the magnifying glass of the media.”
BlackBerry has launched its new OS and devices just a couple of weeks before, with devices on sale in the UK, in Canada and in the Middle East -- and soon to arrive in the US. While Heins couldn’t give us any numbers, he did say, “I’m really excited by where we are. What we’re seeing from sales is very encouraging. We have built something that fits the world’s eye, something that is different and speaks to the market”.
Heins has had two challenges: to shepherd the new BlackBerry platform to launch, and to restructure and rebuild the company, with a whole new management team. That’s meant keeping engineering at work, while bringing in a new marketing team, a new COO, and even a new legal team.
He’s not finished. “We’re not done with our transformation, we’re about 60% done. But we did the right thing, it gives us energy to proceed.”
Behind the software
We’ve all seen BlackBerry 10 now, with its gesture driven user interface and its dip-in, dip-out Hub. Vivek Bhardwaj, head of Software Portfolio, explained that it was designed to help users make efficient use of their time, letting them choose what to interact with, whether email, Facebook, Twitter, or BBM, and when. Bhardwaj noted that the Hub is central to BB 10, suggesting, “Ultimately it’s an enabler.”
It’s a big change for users familiar with the BlackBerry keyboard, but one Bhardwaj feels the company needed to make. In fact, the change was right there at the start of the design process.
“The first thing we needed to do was remove all physical navigation. We kept the BlackBerry DNA, but moved to a gesture-based UI using the thumb. The result was a thumb-based, single-handed UI.” The process involved a lot of comparisons with other smartphones, and Bhardwaj said that approach had inspired key design decisions, “We found a barrier was having to look at everything on the screen. With BB 10 controls and actions are in the bottom third of the screen, within thumb reach, no need for confirmation. So it’s just a gesture to wake them up.”
BlackBerry knew it wanted to offer a multitasking environment, but also knew what it wanted to avoid. “A grid of apps, an in and out experience, that wasn’t what we want to develop. We wanted to be able to open up apps and continue to open others -- like on your computer. That’s the world we want users to live in.”
BB 10 limits users to eight concurrently running apps, as research had found that most users cycled between 5 and 7 apps at a time, and tended to forget what they were doing with more than 7 in use. The UI makes sure that the most recent is at the top left, and the least used is at the bottom right. If you open a ninth app, the OS just closes the eighth. The Hub itself replaces what could have been another dozen or so apps, with quick access to notifications – and to what you were doing last. Bhardwaj describes it as like using a watch, “with simple human actions. It’s a living service that continues to run all the time, just a single gesture away.” He notes one big change as a result, “There’s no messaging icon, anywhere.”
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