When I got my hands this week on one of Research in Motion’s new prototype phones – courtesy of a skittish source who wished to remain anonymous – my expectations were low. Not because I expect RIM’s new line of phones to be a disappointment, but because what I was holding in my hands wasn’t really a new phone, it was the start of a months-long sales pitch.
Earlier this month, at its annual conference in Orlando, RIM gave some of its developers an early preview of what its new generation of phones will look and feel like. The company handed out prototype BlackBerry 10 handsets (the real things aren’t expected until late this year). The idea was to give the people who build BlackBerry apps a sense of what kind of phones are on the way. RIM’s single most important challenge, as it prepares to launch the new line of devices that will make or break the company, is to get as many app developers onside as possible.
Far from finished products, what RIM gave out in Orlando were Alpha phones, meaning they will undergo serious modification and improvement before the general public ever gets its hands on them.
Before we go on, here’s a quick primer on how the tech industry treats its rough drafts: Traditionally, companies build software in stages. One of the earlier stages is Alpha, when a product is nearly done, but still full of bugs. Beta software is usually stable enough to unleash on the public, but with a warning that things might still go unexpectedly wrong.
(In the past decade or so, companies such as Google began throwing the designation Beta onto software for painfully long periods of time, even as thousands of users were signed on to the services. Essentially, Beta stopped meaning “somewhat incomplete software” and started meaning “a finished product we still want to hedge our bets on.”)
The BlackBerry 10 devices are true Alpha products. These are prototype phones, designed solely for the purpose of giving RIM’s app developer partners some idea of what’s coming down the pipeline. RIM wants people developing apps for its new suite of phones as early as possible, if only to avoid a repeat of the PlayBook debacle of last year, when the company released a powerful tablet with a miserable selection of third-party apps.
As such, the developer Alpha phone must be forgiven its myriad deficiencies. Sure, the virtual keyboard has a habit of missing keystrokes, and the phone comes pre-loaded with almost nothing but a Web browser, but none of this matters – this is not the version of the phone RIM plans to sell consumers. Developers don’t care about playing Angry Birds on this thing, they just want to know what they’re being asked to build apps for.
As far as hardware goes, the BB10 developer prototype looks an awful lot like a black iPhone 4S without a home button. The only physical buttons are the silver volume controls on one side and the power button on the top edge. Along the other side of the phone, opposite the volume controls, there’s an HDMI port, a USB port and a ‘micro’ SIM card tray. The speaker runs along the bottom edge of the phone. The phone comes with front and rear cameras. There’s no physical keyboard, just a plain slab of glass.
It’s very likely this particular phone will not be the only flavour of BlackBerry that hits markets when RIM does launch its BB10 devices. Even the slightest hint that the company is abandoning its world-class physical keyboards would draw howls of protest from hardcore BlackBerry users, so expect a variety of offerings.
For the developer prototype phone, RIM has essentially slapped on a clone of the operating system that currently runs on the PlayBook tablet. It’s clear there was no effort on the company’s part to make even the slightest cosmetic adjustments to the software before putting it on the phone.
But this is arguably a good thing, given RIM’s motivation for handing out these phones in the first place – it lets developers know that building apps for the new BB10 devices is going to be very, very similar to building apps for the PlayBook. That’s going to make some developers happy, because a long-standing complaint about building apps for BlackBerrys is the sheer number of different models and screen sizes out there. At a time when some developers are already abandoning the company’s phones, it’s in RIM’s best interest to let developers know early on that they won’t have to learn some esoteric new programming language or unfamiliar operating system to design BB10 apps.