In recent years, BlackBerry has lost ground to Apple's iPhone and the numerous phones running Google Android. It is also facing the renewed challenge of Microsoft's Windows Phone and from a new breed of open-source operating systems, such as Ubuntu and Mozilla's Firefox OS.
> BlackBerry Z10 review - Neat handset but let down by OS
Unlike Nokia - which plumped with Windows Phone rather than develop its own operating system for the Lumia range - BlackBerry decided to go it alone, and bought the QNX operating system in April 2010 and transformed it into BlackBerry 10. But has BlackBerry done enough to push itself ahead of the curve? Let's find out.
Editor's note: We tested the BlackBerry 10 operating system on a BlackBerry Z10 full touch-screen smartphone. At the time of publication, we had not tried it out on a Q10 handset with a physical keyboard.
Upon first seeing the core layout of BlackBerry 10, it feels a bit like going back to Android past - to FroYo, or GingerBread. It's the same neat rows of app icons but not presented in a different or more innovative way. But that bellies the fact that BlackBerry 10 is a very different experience as a smartphone operating system.
In fact, first coming into the software is a rather confusing experience. There are no Home or Back buttons, instead you perform everything with gestures in a system dubbed BlackBerry Flow. Swiping up the screen always brings you back to the home screen, or the 'Active Frames' - this features up to eight windows that change according to whatever apps you are using most.
Whilst there is a bit of a learning curve here, it doesn't take too long to get the feel of the system. BlackBerry Flow feels much more functional than Windows Phone's Live Tiles, and is clearly intended to give a focused snapshot of what you are doing on the phone. However, we don't like how clicking on an app momentarily shunts to the home screen, as it makes you think you have made the wrong gesture.
The BlackBerry Hub collates all the communications and social networks into one feed. This includes email, text messages and phone calls, along with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. It is essentially a master inbox that is always accessed by swiping right from the Active Frames.
It is a little confusing at first having everything feeding into the same inbox, but BlackBerry has been careful to use different icons to flag up different types of communications. You can also swipe to the right again to access the individual inboxes and feeds. This is a clear and uncluttered feature that is more coherent and reminiscent of a traditional inbox than the People Hub in Windows Phone.
BlackBerry has always prided itself on the typing experience on its phones, and the touch keyboard on the Z10 is the best built-in system we have seen on a smartphone operating system. The trademark BlackBerry keyboard pops up on the screen and is built so intuitively for typing.
Even though they are touch, the keys have a more solid and satisfying feeling than typing on iOS, Android or Windows Phone platforms. But the best feature by far is 'flip word'. The keyboard has a learning engine that monitors what you are typing and then suggests words above the keys. So you may type "time for..." and then the system will throw up "bed" as an option. You can then just flick your thumb over it to write the full word.
Now predictive text is nothing new, but flip word is so much faster and more intelligent than most systems. It is possible to write entire sentences with just your thumb. Considering its reputation, BlackBerry had to get the keyboard right, and it has. The system also supports three different languages for multilingual people, a key feature considering BlackBerry's big business customer base.
On the Z10, BlackBerry 10's camera system offers a seriously quick shutter speed. Most photos are taken almost instantly, which means you are less likely to miss the subject you are capturing. But we are unable at this stage to know whether the shutter speed is equally fast on the Q10.
Compared to rival systems, there aren't many bells or whistles on the camera system, apart from stabilisation, adjustable aspect ratio and burst shot. There is the option to take a burst of shots and then scroll between them all to pick the best one. But apart from that, we are pretty thin on the ground here. Features like Panorama and Photostream are now pretty much standard, yet BlackBerry 10 is found lacking on both counts.
Story Book is a nice feature, though, that enables you to create visual stories set to music. So, you select a load of different images, say from a holiday, and then select a piece of music to play with them. You can name the story and then select a number of filters, such as black and white or Chromatic. What you end up with is a mini movie featuring all your photos. It's not hugely sophisticated but quite fun to play around with.
BlackBerry 10 is an operating system of two halves, or at least it can be if you want it to. BlackBerry Balance enables you to create separate 'work' and 'personal' accounts on the smartphone, each with their own apps and communications connections. So, you can have SAP and a secure network attached to work, and Angry Birds and Facebook tapped into personal.
After setting them up, the personal and work accounts are accessed by tapping the screen and then dragging down from the top. Content cannot be transferred between the two sides, as they are completely separate. With many corporate companies now favouring Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) at work, analysts KPMG think this could be the "killer feature" of BlackBerry 10, as no other mobile company is doing it.
BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service has been given a spruce-up for BlackBerry 10 but the headline new feature is BBM Video calls. The system enables free calls between BBM users. Video calling is nothing new, just look at Skype and FaceTime on Apple devices, but BlackBerry has created a system called Screen Share, enabling you to sync your screen over to the person you are calling.
This means that both you and your friend or colleague are looking at the same screen, and so can browse and view documents, photos or videos in real-time while still on the call. This has obvious benefits for business customers but also for consumers. Many people have had WhatsApp chats and wanted to show a picture, video or weblink on their handset, but had to attach it instead, which can be laborious and not always work.
BlackBerry 10's launch coincides with the rebranding of BlackBerry App World as just BlackBerry World. The previous store was rather a sad affair, and BlackBerry has gone to great lengths to catch up with iTunes and Google Play. There are now movies, TV shows and a big library of music that can be downloaded, including content from most of the major players.
But BB10's success was always going to be about the apps, and on this score things again feel a bit lacking. The OS launches with access to more than 70,000 apps from BlackBerry World, including big names such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare, along with Skype, Amazon Kindle, WhatsApp, Angry Birds, Where's My Water?, Box, Rdio, Songza, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.
However, popular photo-sharing app Instagram is not available, neither is music streaming services like Spotify or Pandora, or video streaming video apps such as Netflix and YouTube. Google Maps is also not present on the platform, as BlackBerry has included its own mapping app as standard, which certainly feels very limited in comparison. Anyone who has used Google Maps will feel like they have regressed, particularly over the lack of transport and local information.
BlackBerry has said that the company is "in talks" with the likes of Instagram and Netflix, but was unable to confirm when these apps would become available to BlackBerry users. Apple already has 700,000 apps in iTunes, and Google Play is not too far behind, while Windows Phone is said to have more than 125,000 apps. BlackBerry 10 has come a long way from a standing start, but it also has a long, long way to go yet.
BlackBerry's new operating system has some really strong features, particularly the keyboard and BlackBerry Balance, but it will need to continue developing BlackBerry 10 and charming the third-party developers if it is to truly take on Android, and iOS, as well as stay ahead of the pack of Windows Phone, Ubuntu, Tizen, Firefox OS and Jolla's Sailfish.
Much talk has this week been on whether BlackBerry 10 will save the company formerly known as Research In Motion, but it's a bit early to tell on that score. The brand is now on a lengthy and no doubt arduous path to revive itself, and BlackBerry 10 puts it at least back in the smartphone game.