Consider the BlackBerry Z10, a Smart Fish in an Ocean of Smartphones

The Atlantic Wire

So maybe you're shopping for a new cellphone this weekend. You could wait for that heady new Facebook phone, but that would make you one of them. Or you could hold out for that cheap iPhone, which Apple swears is coming. And then there's the latest savior from BlackBerry, which, hey, when I tried it out over the last two weeks — and out at the bar on the weekend — at least nobody made fun of it.

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Indeed, the BlackBerry Z10 has succeeded for the struggling Canadian company in at least one sense: It's no longer embarrassing to whip out a BlackBerry in public, a low bar for an information and communication machine. Although one BetaBeat blogger had the exact opposite experience, every time I took out the Z10 people responded with awe and wonder. It has the "BlackBerry" name right there on the front. And yet, people wanted to touch it — it was almost as if they'd hoped the once popular BBM machine had cleaned itself up a bit. Nostalgia is powerful these days, but is it powerful enough?

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Just looking at the thing, one does get the impression of an evolution. Before turning on the BlackBerry Z10, you want to like it. While switched off, the buttonless screen looks like a chic yet wise black hole full of information. Its plastic "BlackBerry" crested back adds durability, not chintz, making it the type of phone I can throw in my purse without investing in another $30 case. And while it has a much bigger screen than the 3.5-inch iPhones 4 and 4S, its slim body makes an otherwise giant 4.2-inch screen manageable. It's after turning the thing on when those impressed BlackBerry onlookers started to lose interest — not because of anything too offensive, just for a lack of interest to learn.

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As other reviewers have noted in the two weeks since the Z10's release (are you sick of that commercial yet?), the BlackBerry 10 operating system has a "steep learning curve." That's an accurate statement for phone savvy tech bloggers and an understatement for most phone users. Indeed, there is a lot of learning involved, mainly because the Z10 has no home screen button. Users have to swipe to get around: swipe up to get to some places, swipe left to get to others, swipe right to get elsewhere. Once in a program, you might find yourself swiping furiously just to get out of it. (When in doubt, swipe up!) It is possible to get used to the swiping, but unforunately for BlackBerry when someone comes in to a phone store and tries out the phones, familiarity matters.

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Windows 8 has had this problem (especially when it comes to its Surface tablet), with sales lagging because people don't like the totally new look, something CEO Steve Ballmer says consumers will get over once they get used to the product. BlackBerry has already had a similar adoption issue, per its first (otherwise good) earnings report: It hasn't sold enough phones to loyal users yet. That report, however, did not include U.S. sales, since the phone only went on sale in U.S. markets two Fridays ago. But there was a notable lack of lines, which drove down BlackBerry's shares on its debut day, according to multiple media reports. Despite what that says about future sales, even with a big launch event, all that March Madness marketing, and generally favorable reviews from the tech press, people didn't show in droves.

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I suspect it has something to do with this familiarity problem. But this is more than just a nostalgia issue. People can get over the newness of something. Remember the original iPhone reviews? People didn't understand a phone without a keyboard. The problem with the new BlackBerry, however, is that it doesn't give to many people a legitimate reason to switch back to their old BBM-ing, clickety-clack ways. The loyalists who like the BlackBerry of yonder will find it too different. And the current iPhone and Samsung customers won't have a reason to align with a new brand and its new OS. (The BlackBerry Q10, with the same new operating system and that familiar tactile keyboard, arrives later this month.)

Think about it: BBM is only as good as the number of people that use it. For people who live in cities, BlackBerry Maps doesn't have subway directions. The whole app itself is a big mess. It only maps directions from a current location to another place. So, if you want to figure out distances or routes from somewhere you're not, it's impossible. By the way, for Google loyalists, the app store, BlackBerry World, doesn't feature a Google Maps app. Speaking of the World store, it doesn't offer Instagram, which is kind of bizarre because it prominently features its the trademark app of its owners at Facebook (which would now tell you too much Facebook up front is not enough). Maybe that's not your social network of choice, but it's indicative of a larger issue: BlackBerry isn't at the forefront of apps, a thing that kind matters for a gadget aspiring to be on the vanguard.

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None of which is to say the Z10 doesn't offer some (very user-specific) reasons to switch from your iPhone or Android device this weekend. The new BlackBerry's keyboard is smart and responsive. And BlackBerry users care about these things, because of the tactile keyboard. Once you realize that you can basically type a sentence of garbled up typos and the phone knows what you mean, translating it into real words, you won't miss the old clicky keys.

The hub, which shows emails, phone calls, text messages, and all modes of communication in one easy to read screen (pictured at right), provides the perfect snapshot of phone happenings. iPhone and Android software feature similar notifications centers, but BlackBerry collects them all in one place without making you launch a bunch of applications to read a text message or answer an email. Click on "Gmail," and the email screen just slides right over. Instead of clicking the (non-existent home button), just thumb right to get back the hub. It's all very smooth.

While nice, those two things alone probably won't get hoards of people to tackle a device with so much learning involved. But there is one group I can see loving this phone: business people currently using two different phones. BlackBerry's whole work-personal balance thing makes this an enticing device for consolidating gadgets. BlackBerry Enterprise Service, which involves setup with your company business, keeps work email completely separate, technically, but aligned physically. So, say you want to leave your company; you can just disengage that account, which your company has complete control over and keep the phone. Unless you're like the Path CEO and get some sick bragging-rights pleasure out of toting two gadgets with the same purpose, the promise of ditching the ole "work-only" BlackBerry makes the purchase of a Z10 more than worthwhile.

And for those of you who take the plunge, take heart: The stigma of owning a BlackBerry has evaporated. The judgmental masses will look at you and your phone like a celebrity and her entourage on the verge of a comeback, like Britney Spears circa Blackout. Nobody's quite ready to call it a comeback. But it's something. Something very promising.

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