I remember picking up my email for the first time on my mobile over 10 years ago. I was using one of the first BlackBerry phones, and it felt a little bit like magic. If someone sent me a message, it just arrived -- I didn't need to ask the phone to check for it, and the Qwerty keyboard was loads better than the predictive text on the number keys I'd been using up until then.
In fact, no other phone at the time was anywhere near as good as that BlackBerry -- but everything else caught up and got a lot better. If I use a modern-day BlackBerry phone, it feels pretty much like that first phone I used all those years ago -- something that belongs in the distant past, like S Club 7.
I'm hardly the first or the only person to have noticed this. Customers have been deserting BlackBerry for a long time, with its market share plummeting. After doing very little about it for a long time, RIM, makers of the BlackBerry, will be releasing a completely new, redesigned version of its operating system called BB10. It's been shown off at various events around the world before, but I had my first demo of it today, and it seems as though there will be much to like.
The strongest elements so far are in what RIM is calling "the flow" and "peeking". The idea here is you won't need to constantly switch between programs to find out information stored in different places.
From the home screen, for example, you will be able to 'peek' into your emails by using a gesture to lift up the corner of a window and see if you have anything exciting (see the picture at the top). For iPhones and Android mobiles, that means switching apps, which can become time-consuming and frustrating.
The keyboard sounds good too. The phone displays the word it thinks you're going to type above the letters you'll hit if its assumption is correct, which could make it marginally faster to use. RIM also says the on-screen keyboard letters adjust where they appear depending on how you type, making it more accurate.
As with all demonstrations everywhere, after saying how fast it was to use, it went wrong, making it appear no better than any other phone keyboard -- but it's a decent idea if it eventually works properly. A personal mode locks out your dull work email and files when you're not working, which means you can block out work at the weekend. I like this idea a lot.
There was no time in my session for me to actually use the product, but generally it seemed like a good start. But that's the problem -- it's just a start. RIM's saying it will take until the first quarter of next year to appear in shops and by then, it's hard to see what impact it could realistically have.
However good the final product is, it's going to be competing with a very strong set of Android phones, with shed-loads of apps. Microsoft will have launched Windows Phone 8 and that will either have been a roaring success or a dismal failure. And then there's the iPhone -- that's going nowhere.
As hard as it is to predict future trends in consumer tech, there's one thing I am pretty sure about: there isn't enough room in the mobile industry for four separate software ecosystems. I'm not sure there's even enough room for three. Windows Phones have hardly been a glorious hit so far, and even someone making perfectly good handsets such as HTC is struggling to make headway against the giants of Samsung and Apple. Remember Palm? The phones were good, but not enough people bought them. Phones are a tough market to operate in right now.
Anything could happen, but if I had to bet on it, I'd have to say that RIM is screwed. However good BB10 is, it's too late -- Google and Apple already won this fight. But for the sake of my S-Club partying self, here's hoping I'm wrong.