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Call from a perfect 10

Mumbai, Jan. 20: If you believe that Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive created the unbeatable touch-screen experience with the iPhone and the iPad, maybe it’s time to question that touching faith in Apple’s gizmos.

Jobs reinvented the world of mobile handsets in June 2007 with the multi-touch screen iPhone: you could pinch the screen to minimise the text on screen, flick the fingers apart to zoom and so forth. The iPhone was created because Jobs hated the stylus, famously arguing that if God gave man 10 styluses as fingers what was the point in “re-inventing” another.

Thorsten Heins, CEO and president of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion (RIM), is preparing to go one better: it’s all down to the thumb. The rest of the fingers will merely be used to cradle or loosely wrap around the BlackBerry 10 device that RIM hopes will rock the world when it launches on January 30.

An exclusive sneak preview for The Telegraph at RIM India’s offices here in Mumbai debunks the myth that the Apple-inspired touchscreen experience can never be improved upon — and that everyone else is somehow condemned to reprise that experience and fervently pray that they don’t invite a rash of patent lawsuits.

Sitting through an hour-long demo with Sunil Lalvani, RIM India’s director (enterprise sales), you can’t help but think that BlackBerry —which has gone through a horrific time in the past year with tumbling sales and workforce cuts — may be ready to bounce back with a winner.

Lalvani is giving me the demo on a prototype that sports a 4.3-inch screen. “This isn’t the real thing,” he says in a quick prefatory comment.

“The look and feel of the device we plan to launch in New York and several other cities later this month is going to be a lot different from the one I am holding in my hand. But it will give you a fair idea of the user experience we have built into it.”

“Let’s wake it up,” says Lalvani, sliding his thumb in a slow, fluid gesture from the bottom of the screen to the top. As he does so, the screen starts to light up in a gradually spreading flush, very much like the way a new day dawns. Slide the thumb from top down and the device goes into sleep mode. Cool.

Heins and his boffins at Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM have developed what they call “peek and flow” — a concept that underpins user experience in the long-awaited BlackBerry 10. Anyone who has used a smartphone knows just how frustrating it can get when you need to flit between apps. Let’s say you are using Twitter and you are suddenly pinged: a message from the boss on your office mail. On any device that you use today, you would have to close the Twitter app and open the message inbox to check the mail.

All eyes on the Hub

Peek and flow junks that time-consuming process. Simply swipe the thumb up the screen and pull to the right. When you do that the screen slides along with the thumb and you get to peek into the BlackBerry Hub, which really is the core of the BlackBerry 10 OS.

Peek and Flow and the BlackBerry Hub are the buzzwords that underlie the intuitive user experience in the BB10. The Hub houses all the incoming messages and notifications from every conceivable source, which includes SMS, e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, voice messages, phone messages and third-party apps. What goes into the Hub is user defined — which means that you decide what it should contain. This means that you are never going to be more than a thumb swipe away from any message, notification or app. You can now respond to e-mails, messages, calls and then skip back to whatever you were doing before the interruption — all in a jiffy.

“The BB10 is the Brave New World for the hyper-connected, multi-tasking individuals that most of us have become in the corporate world,” says Lalvani.

Corporate clients will be pretty much blown away by the Calendar. This allows you to plan your engagements over a six-month period. You can colour code official appointments, social events, personal engagements. The colour coded bar stacks up right next to the date so that you tell with a quick glance how busy your schedules are going to be.

But that’s not all. The Calendar will also help you bone up for a crucial meeting by diving into the agenda and learning about the people who will be attending. It keeps you posted on past activity; if it is a second meeting with the client, you can get a quick rundown on what was discussed earlier. If it is a new client, you can get a quick update on the company through its webpage or news aggregator websites with just a flick of the thumb.

But the device isn’t the only thing that RIM is plugging. The entire architecture is propped up by the BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10 (or simply BES 10) which is launching around the same time. The device and BES 10 need to be yoked together to create the rich experience. BES 10 is really an upgraded version of the BlackBerry Mobile Fusion — and it will support not only the BB10 but also Apple iOS and Android phones through a single, centralised management console.

“From an enterprise solutions perspective, RIM sees everyone as a potential customer even if you don’t use a BlackBerry device,” says Lalvani. In one sense, BES 10 enables RIM to hedge its bets even if its devices don’t catch on.

To start with, RIM will be launching two BB10 devices: one with a full touchscreen experience, and the other with a touchscreen pad and a physical Qwerty keyboard. Later, this year RIM plans to launch a range of devices at different price points.

The BB10 will come to India “pretty soon since it is a big market”. Lalvani says the pricing will be decided close to launch, but adds that the full touchscreen device will be priced right up there with the best in the market.

All through last year, the Cassandras have been writing epitaphs for BlackBerry. But come January 30, things might change — and RIM could literally thumb its nose at its harshest critics.

 
 
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