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Secret space is where BlackBerry smartphones are born

Getting access to BlackBerry's New Product Realisation Centre in Waterloo, Ontario, to witness the birth of a smartphone is a lot like visiting a hospital delivery room - with a few high-tech twists.
The headquarters of Research in Motion, now renamed BlackBerry, in Waterloo, Ontario. Geoff Robins / Reuters
The headquarters of Research in Motion, now renamed BlackBerry, in Waterloo, Ontario. Geoff Robins / Reuters

Waterloo, Ontario // Getting access to BlackBerry's New Product Realisation Centre to witness the birth of a smartphone is a lot like visiting a hospital delivery room - with a few high-tech twists.

The process requires passing two security guards, ditching all digital devices at the door and donning an antistatic smock as well as foot straps to avoid tracking in electricity and mistakenly frying circuit boards or other sensitive gadgetry once inside.

Sounds like a pain? Even Queen Elizabeth II underwent this screening ritual when she was granted entry into the facility in 2010.

But this is not a mass production plant that spits out millions of smartphones each year. It is the place where BlackBerry prototypes get perfected, including new models such as the Z10, Q10, "and other things we can't tell you about", says Siraj Memon, the centre's manufacturing manager.

For months before BlackBerry unveiled its latest mobiles and software platform, BB10, few outsiders were permitted access to this secret space, particularly from the press.

Back then the company was still reeling from a steep drop in sales, cutting about 5,000 employees and revamping its entire management team — and was then calling itself Research In Motion (RIM), instead of the newly rebranded BlackBerry.

"A year ago I felt the universe was in disarray, like the planets were moving around pretty wildly," says Thorsten Heins, who took over at BlackBerry last year after its co-chief executives, including a co-founder, stepped down.

"It was all about 'RIM is going to go bankrupt. You guys are going to run out of money and aren't even going to make it to BlackBerry 10,'" Mr Heins adds. "It was good, constructive criticism — and, as you say in boxing, below the belt. And it hurt."

What stings less these days are the generally positive reviews for BlackBerry's new mobiles and software platform, which took two years to develop before being unveiled on January 30.

Since then executives have gone from holding their breath to being somewhat boastful about their new BlackBerry babies. At the beginning of one meeting this month, Thad White, the company's director of hand-held product management, read aloud glowing reviews about the Z10's keyboard from well-known tech writers such as David Pogue of The New York Times and Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, who noted that "the Z10 keyboard is the best and fastest out-of-the-box virtual keyboard I've used".

But it certainly took time to work out the new keyboard's kinks. Initially, "it was a problem area we were never happy with", says Todd Wood, BlackBerry's senior vice president of design. "Touching or typing on glass was never satisfying, whether a competitor's product or our own product."

Designers, based around Canada and the world, ended up reverting back to the keyboard size of the BlackBerry 9900, as they considered it "best in class" and wanted customers to be able to type with two fingers.

They removed some navigational buttons to expand the screen size then layered in new predictive intelligence software to anticipate the words people may use when writing emails or other text.

Mr White also noted that the company employed high-speed cameras to measure the latency between fingers touching different letters on various keyboards before selecting the best version.

"There's a lot behind the scenes you don't see," says Mr White.

Few may also know, for instance, that one of the major design inspirations behind the Z10 is actually a full-scale home - The Farnsworth House, to be precise. This minimalist yet modern structure, which was built by Ludwig Miles van der Rohe in 1951 and is located in Plano, Illinois, makes it appear like the floor and ceiling of the building are each floating. When applied to the mechanics of BlackBerry's mobile, the design is meant to let users flow through various apps and programmes without having to return to a main screen each time - "like going into a centre hall of an old-style home before going to the bathroom or kitchen," says Mr Wood.

"That's one thing we wanted to use this opportunity to get back to: what is the essence of this BlackBerry? Could all your [mobile] tools be in one place, and how could you seamlessly float between those things?"

It took plenty of prototypes - "hundreds if not thousands," Mr Wood estimates - before the Z10 came to look like what it does now. Some rejected models, which were physically produced in a 3D printer in Waterloo, appear to be more elongated or more sharply angled around the edges, according to images of prototypes and design sketches shown to The National.

Today, dozens of technicians are still toiling away inside BlackBerry's Waterloo facility as they create new products and prototypes of products that are set to expand the company's portfolio of devices that run BB10.

Row after row of people, who are interspersed next to machines in assembly lines, peel stickers off LCD screens or read digital monitors that produce an alert if a smartphone component fails a certain quality test, among other tasks. Machines like the "roadrunner" - what the techies here call the contraption that places a processor, or digital brains, into a BlackBerry - are programmed to be highly accurate.

Once a smartphone passes through "the oven" and gets a circuit board baked inside, it moves on to a series of robotic and human visual inspections and then officially becomes born in a machine that stamps on a serial number.

The goal here, of course, is that this carefully controlled environment will produce more of the kinds of devices that willhelp to turnaround BlackBerry's recent misfortunes.

Last year, the company sold just enough mobiles to control 2 per cent of the world's market, which was down from 3 per cent a year earlier, according to a report released this month by Gartner, a market research firm. Rivals such as Samsung and Nokia, by comparison, each held at least 19 per cent of the market based on mobile sales.

Since BlackBerry's Z10 became available this month in regions such as North America, the United Kingdom and the Middle East, it has seen "pretty encouraging" sales and "really, really good" return rates, Mr Heins says. The company is expected to share actual figures in March, during its next earnings announcement.

This year marked the first time that the UAE, or the Middle East for that matter, was included in the global launch of new BlackBerry products, through an event held in Dubai.

"Dubai and the Middle East is an important region for us," says Kristian Tear, BlackBerry's chief operating officer. "It launched well there. We're pleased with that, and it's a huge market there."

While certain markets are still launching BlackBerry's latest offerings, some analysts have begun downgrading previously optimistic sales forecasts. Canaccord Genuity, for one, recently cut its shipment estimate for this month from 1.75 million units down to just 300,000.

Outwardly, at least, BlackBerry is still bullish about its prospects - even though the company acknowledges it still has a lot of work to do internally.

"We're not done with our transformation yet," says Mr Heins. "By now, we're about 60 per cent through. There's still work to be done to make this a lean, lean hunting machine."



Updated: February 26, 2013 04:00 AM



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