Apple and Google have nothing to fear from BlackBerry 10 -- but Microsoft does

Hands-on review: BlackBerry 10 is a big step up, but it's awkward to use in some key areas.

The simple Flow interface for shuffling among apps is also nice. You quickly learn you can move from the Hub to your running apps' tiles to your app icons and back with simple swipes, and the gesture becomes second nature fast. But, despite what the folks at BlackBerry claim, it's not really easier than iOS's multitasking dock or Android's running-apps windowlet. Closing an app (the app still runs in the background) and getting to the running apps' tiles by swiping up from the bottom of the screen is also no easier than tapping a home button.

In some cases, it is slower. That's because when you close an app, you are presented with a screen of tiles of running apps, and you have to then swipe to the right to see the various app screens if the app you want is not running. iOS's home button makes that faster, though not as fast as Android's quick access to airplane mode via the notification tray.

BlackBerry did find a different app-switching approach in the WebOS-like Flow compared to what iOS and Android do. It is generally well-executed, but it provides no competitive advantage. Still the BlackBerry 10 OS user interface is easy to learn and overall efficient and straightforward.

Security for more users than beforeA very welcome change to BlackBerry OS is its support of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies such as requiring encryption and passwords. The previous BlackBerry OS protected devices only if a company invested in the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). By contrast, both iOS and Android support EAS out of the box, with further security capabilities available, especially for iOS, if your company uses a mobile device management (MDM) server. The BlackBerry 10 OS now can be used in EAS-secured environments, not just those that buy BES.

I was pleased that the BlackBerry 10 OS automatically encrypts the device -- like iOS. Android supports encryption, but it has to be turned on manually and takes about 45 minutes; plus, to install OS updates, you have to turn it off temporarily. The BlackBerry 10 OS's encryption can't be turned off by the user as long as you're using an EAS account that requires it.

BlackBerry has touted its Balance technology that lets you set up separate business and personal environments on the smartphone, which you can easily switch between and still have a unified view of in the Hub. But Balance requires BES 10, which is available in a demo version (the final version is due in May), so I could not test it.

The rest of BlackBerry 10The Contacts app is nicely designed, with configurable fields per card as in iOS. Each card is a hub to a person's social-networking activities -- a clone of Microsoft's slick People app approach in Windows Phone and Windows 8. The Calendar app is well-designed, and continues to offer the more sophisticated recurring-event patterns of the previous BlackBerry OS. The Remember app for to-do items is also fine. And BlackBerry users will like the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) client and its new support for screen sharing and video chats. The Camera app has some nice photo-retouching capabilities. And the Maps app crisply presents maps and driving directions, though like iOS's Maps app it can route only car traffic, not public transit or foot traffic (as Android can). I do wish that more BlackBerry 10 OS apps supported screen rotation; neither the Maps nor Calendar apps do, for example.

Syncing music, videos, photos, and documents over a USB connection is straightforward with the BlackBerry Link app for your Windows PC or Mac, as is backing up your device, but it's no iTunes. When you play music and then switch to an app or the Hub, there's no simple way to pause the music as there is in iOS (via the multitasking dock) or Android (via the notification tray). Instead, you need to change the volume to display a pop-up box that has the Pause control.

The BlackBerry App World app store has a fairly small number of apps, a few dozen serious entries and a similar number of games. BlackBerry says that about 40% of BlackBerry 10 apps are wrapped version of Android apps, not apps really designed for the new OS. That may quickly fill App World, but Android apps as a whole are not that sophisticated, so it remains to be seen how app-oriented the BlackBerry 10 OS will be as opposed to messaging-oriented.

The BlackBerry 10 OS has a Siri-like feature called Voice Control that lets you speak some commands for it to execute, such as "take a note." The voice is harsher than Siri's, and the commands more limited, but it does work. Press the center button in the volume rocker to start it.

The BlackBerry 10 OS's Web browser is fast as promised. The browser has the bookmarking features you'd expect, plus the Reader feature that Apple debuted in iOS and OS X to show just the text of a Web page when desired.

The WebKit-based browser is also the most HTML5-compatible browser yet, according to the HTML5test.com benchmarks. It scores 485 points out of a possible 600, versus 386 for iOS's Safari, 390 for Android's Chrome (the browser in the Google Nexus series), 434 for Android's Browser (which other vendors' Android devices use), and 320 for Windows Phone 8's Internet Explorer. In fact, the BlackBerry 10 browser beats all desktop browsers as well.

But it sometimes has trouble displaying images, not consistently sizing them properly to the mobile screen as iOS and Android do. And although it did well with AJAX sites I tested, it had trouble with some JavaScript menus in that it would not keep them open if the item that opens the menu is itself a link. Overall, this is a top-notch browser missing only the kinds of sharing and sophisticated bookmark organization found in iOS's Safari.

Why Microsoft should worryGiven the superior user experience and capabilities of iOS and Android, it's unlikely any of them would switch to BlackBerry willingly. But even with its flaws, the BlackBerry 10 OS is better than Windows Phone 8, which is less capable and less refined. And let's be honest: Blackberry 10 OS is a good mobile OS in its own right.

The combination of the BlackBerry faithful eagerly awaiting a modern BlackBerry OS (which the BlackBerry 10 OS certainly is), a portion of the people yet to commit to a smartphone platform, and the disgruntled Windows Phone 7.5 users who found out after the fact that their smartphones would never run Windows Phone 8 could be enough to double BlackBerry's current sales to 10% of the market -- that's enough to keep BlackBerry in business.

After all, the BlackBerry 10 OS matches Windows Phone's best feature (the People app), outclasses it in most other areas, and fits better into a security-conscious corporation than Windows Phone does. And the Z10 is a nice piece of hardware.

This story, "Apple and Google have nothing to fear from BlackBerry 10 -- but Microsoft does," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Apple and Google have nothing to fear from BlackBerry 10 -- but Microsoft does" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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