Hands on with BlackBerry OS 10 virtual keyboard

Heaven knows RIM has taken a quite a beating these last few years. At BlackBerry World 2012 in Orlando, Florida, at a gathering of the RIM faithful, the company says it's on the mend, and will focus like a laser on what it does best — building mobile products for doers, not talkers.

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins on stage at BlackBerry World 2012, with the new BlackBerry virtual keyboard on-screen behind him.
(Credit: CBS Interactive)

Meet the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha

If you've lost hope that RIM smartphones running the promised BlackBerry 10 operating system would ever happen, you're not alone. That's why I was pleasantly surprised when the company showed off its newly minted reference gadget, the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha. Of course, seeing the gizmo for the first time didn't give me as much of a thrill as, say, a real device slated for actual production. That's right; the Dev Alpha is, as its name suggests, merely a tool for developers to test their fledgling BlackBerry 10 OS app creations.

RIM will seed developers with this unit during the conference, though it is far from a finished product.
(Credit: CBS Interactive)

Despite its official pedigree, the Dev Alpha handset I saw was running the BlackBerry PlayBook OS, and not BB 10. In fact, RIM representatives I met with explained that none of the Dev Alpha units attendees of BlackBerry Jam (a sister developer-only event also happening at BB World 2012) will take home will run the anticipated OS.

That's a shame, because the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha's hardware looks and feels premium. When I held it in my hand, I was struck with its solid — even, dare I say, expensive — feel. With blunt, rectangular edges, the handheld device sports an aesthetic akin to the PlayBook tablet. You'll even find a similar black, rubberised material coating the phone's sides and back. Also, like the PlayBook, the Dev Alpha features a micro-USB port and HDMI out as primary connections.

RIM confided that the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha uses a 4.2-inch, 1280x768-resolution screen, which looked sharp and colourful enough, but not absolutely vibrant. One big departure from current BlackBerry products is the lack of real physical keys.

Do it, don't just say it

Hardware aside, the slickest aspect of the Dev Alpha device is a prototype of its keyboard software. Now, I've used many virtual keyboards in my day, from multiple versions of stock Android, the iPhone, and Windows Phone to ones created by Samsung and HTC. I've even messed with compelling third-party options, like Thumb and SwiftKey. I have to say, though, that the prototype RIM cooked up is pretty sweet. Sadly, RIM didn't allow any photos or video of the keyboard, so I'll paint you a picture.

At first glance, it doesn't look like much; just a standard layout with not many options for dual functions. When you start typing — that's when the magic happens. Each letter you tap will cause the phone to display suggested words above the letter that it thinks you're most likely to type next. I tried my hand at banging out a few messages, and I often found myself staring right at the word sitting on the tip of my tongue. It's honestly an uncanny feeling, almost as if the device was reading my mind.

Also nice is how you can flick suggested words up to the text field, sort of like a reverse Tetris game, but your reward, as I experienced firsthand, is swift sentence building. If you make a mistake, just swipe your finger horizontally across the keyboard to make quick deletions.

What's more, RIM explained that the keyboard is designed to learn how you specifically punch keys, where exactly you tend to place your fingers, etc, and will adjust itself to fit you over time "like a glove".

RIM execs made it clear that this approach is symbolic of the BlackBerry culture of getting things done, and not merely talking or reading about it on the internet. Of course, if RIM doesn't ship these BB 10 products soon — well, let's just say that will speak volumes as to who's doing and who's just talking.


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