With the release of the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone, the company once known as Research in Motion has staked its future on an ambitious bet: that it could craft a new "mobile user experience" that would, by itself, prove a strong attraction for buyers.
In practice, that means designing a new user interface that can smoothly exploit both the hardware and software features of not just the new smartphones, the all-touch Z10 and the qwerty-keyboard Q10, but also other types of mobile devices, from tablets to automotive systems to exotic embedded systems.
To any number of critics, even thinking about doing so was delusional. RIM, now called BlackBerry, had leveraged the success of its corporate, wireless email devices into smartphone products that grew rapidly in popularity during the mid-2000s. Then Apple introduced the iPhone in mid-2007 and changed the end user expectations about what a mobile device should be like. BlackBerry users were still growing fast, from 8 million in 2007 to 70 million in 2011.
But it couldn't keep pace with the growth of Android and Apple. And its own growth slowed dramatically in 2011, accompanied by a plunge in the stock price, and a widely held view that BlackBerry was finished.
The jury is still out, but even most of the critical early reviews of the Z10 recognize the distinctiveness of the new UI. The BlackBerry Hub, a kind of integrated inbox for communications, alerts, and messaging and email, replaces the characteristic grid of apps that is the typical starting point for iOS and Android users today. The grid is still there, but you reach it with one of a new set of fluid gestures, which users have to invest some time in learning and practicing. The idea is that the Hub becomes both your focal and reference points, and from there you can bring up apps -- by a touch or a swipe -- in context with the tasks you want to perform.
The Canadian company was depending on a relative newcomer, Don Lindsay, vice president of user experience design, to coordinate the effort to redefine not just the "BlackBerry experience," but the core "mobile experience" for users.
Lindsay speaks quietly, unassertively, methodically and readily: He's given these issues a lot of thought. He was recruited from Microsoft, where he worked for about five years, where he was design director at Microsoft Live Labs. Before that, he spent 10 years in design at Apple, where he was design director for the Mac OS X User Experience Group.
He also played a key role in BlackBerry's 2010 acquisition of The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a relatively small but highly regarded design group in Malmo, Sweden, which already counted Samsung, Motorola and Google Android as mobile design clients. That was the same year that BlackBerry bought QNX Software, maker of a proven real-time operating system, which became the foundation on which the new BlackBerry user experience would be built.
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