RIM also decided to make a touch-only version first, despite its strength with physical keyboards, in hopes of luring new customers.
"The idea that we are launching BlackBerry 10 just to upgrade the existing physical keyboard customer base is wrong," Boulben said in an interview. "The new platform we are introducing will have much wider appeal on the market. It's for all the people looking for the next generation in smartphone experience."
But RIM won't abandon physical keyboards. The Q10 will have a square screen and sport a 35-key physical keyboard with a back light, with language-specific arrangements such as QWERTY and AZERTY depending on the market. It's meant to cater to people who still prefer that over a touch screen.
The touch-screen keyboard itself promises such improvements as learning a user's writing style and suggesting words and phrases to complete, going beyond typo corrections offered by rivals.
The new BlackBerrys also are supposed to run faster and enable people to separate their professional and personal lives with a feature called Balance. They also promise to let people easily switch between multiple applications by swiping on the screen. The new BlackBerrys won't have a home button, which is fundamental to the iPhone.
"Gone are the days of going back and forth and in and out between applications," said Andrew MacLeod, RIM's managing director for Canada. "It's cumbersome, it's inefficient and it's slow."
The new software and BlackBerrys were supposed to be released a year ago, only to be delayed while Apple and Android device makers won more zealous converts to their products. In the meantime, Microsoft Corp. rolled out a new Windows operating system for smartphones, confronting RIM with another technology powerhouse to battle.
The delays in developing the new BlackBerrys helped wipe out $70 billion in shareholder wealth and 5,000 jobs.
"It is the most challenging year of my career," said Heins, whose anniversary leading the company occurred last week. "It is also the most exhilarating and exciting one."
Some analysts have questioned whether the company that helped create the smartphone market will survive, especially as its losses have mounted in the past year.
"We'll see if they can reclaim their glory," Gillis said. "My sense is that it will be a phone that everyone says good things about but not as many people buy."
Ovum analyst Adam Leach said he believes the new system will appeal to existing BlackBerry users, but that won't be enough to undercut the popularity of the iPhone and Android devices. He predicted that BlackBerry "will struggle to appeal to a wider audience, and in the long-term will become a niche player in the smartphone market."
That said, RIM won't need a knockout. As smartphone sales grow overall, RIM can still succeed with the BlackBerry 10 without requiring iPhone and Android users to switch.
Regardless of BlackBerry 10's advances, though, the new system will face a key shortcoming: It won't have as many apps written by outside companies and individuals as the iPhone and Android.
RIM said it plans to launch BlackBerry 10 with more than 70,000 apps, and with 100,000 apps by the time it comes to the U.S. But some of those were developed for RIM's PlayBook tablet, first released in 2011, and weren't necessarily adapted to run on the BlackBerry 10. In addition, popular services such as Instagram and Netflix won't have apps on BlackBerry 10.
AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this story. Rob Gillies reported from Toronto.