RIM has been showing reporters the latest beta of its upcoming BlackBerry 10 operating system, which we first looked at back in May. Today's announcements focused on the operating system's multitasking model and navigation, which RIM is calling "Flow."
First, the multitasking: there's room on the BlackBerry 10 home screen for up to eight of what RIM calls "Active Frames." These are functionally similar to Windows Phone's Live Tiles or Android home screen widgets, but rather than being separate entities they're actually minimized versions of currently running applications. The frames can show either a thumbnail view of the entire app, or a special view of the application designed for the home screen. Because these apps are all currently loaded into memory, switching back to them is quick and seamless.
Standard application icons like you might see on an iOS or Android device are located on another screen. You can switch between "personal" and "work" modes to display different icon layouts and use different security settings—applications from your business can run in the more locked-down "work" mode alongside user-installed "personal" applications. This continues the BlackBerry's tradition of catering to business users while also making concessions to more modern, consumer-driven usage patterns.
The navigation in BlackBerry 10 is heavily gesture-based, beginning with the lock screen: unlocking the phone is done by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, but you don't have to press a button to bring up the lock screen first. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen also switches from the app you're currently using back to the home screen. Swiping up and then dragging your finger to the right exposes the so-called BlackBerry Hub, a messaging app that corrals all of your mail, texts, tweets, calls, and other messages into one place.
In-app navigation is also gesture-heavy: if, for example, you're in an e-mail app and you open an attachment, you can swipe to the right to hide the attachment and see the original e-mail, then swipe again to see your inbox. Swiping up slightly, holding your finger where it is, and then swiping back down will allow you to take a peek at notifications and then go back to using your app.
At this stage, BlackBerry 10's usage model appears to eschew hardware and software buttons in favor of pure touch navigation. If you've been following along, there are quite a few complicated gestures needed to expose all of the phone's functionality. Sadly, these aren't always completely intuitive—for example, swiping down in an empty space on your home screen to switch between "personal" and "work" mode—and these don't seem like they'd be easy to explain to neophytes. Still, the new OS looks promising, and it's RIM's last best hope to pull out of its current death spiral—we'll be keeping an eye on BlackBerry 10 as it progresses toward its early 2013 release.