RIM on the Edge: Without Innovation, BlackBerry Will Soon Be Irrelevant

Last week was an eventful one in the smartphone world: Google purchased Motorola Mobility, HP dropped WebOS, and--oh yeah!--Research in Motion announced the availability of its latest BlackBerry smartphones, all running the new BlackBerry 7 OS. The Bold 9900, Torch 9850, and Torch 9810 are all decent phones, but they aren’t strong enough to make RIM phones competitive once more with iPhones and Android handsets. As it continues to lose customers rapidly, RIM needs to take action at once--or BlackBerrys may go the way of WebOS phones.

On the bright side, we know that RIM is planning to launch a line of products based on the QNX OS (which runs RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet). But in the fast-moving mobile world, time is of the essence. Though the leaked images, rumored specs, and buzzed-about features sound enticing, how will the phones compare to those running Android, iOS, or even Windows Phone 7 by the time they come out? Is it already too late for RIM to climb back up to the top?

The clock is ticking on RIM: To win over customers, the company must completely make over the BlackBerry OS, design hardware that can compete with rival phones in processing power and innovation, and make a determined effort to reach out to the developer community.

The sales numbers sadly reflect the current lack of innovation: RIM--once the top-ranking smartphone vendor--has posted the lowest year-to-year growth among IDC’s top five smartphone vendors this year (Apple, Samsung, Nokia, RIM, and HTC).

BlackBerry 7 OS: Playing Catch-Up

BlackBerry OS 7 Homescreen
The newest BlackBerry phones demonstrate how far behind RIM is in both hardware and software. They’re solid, but they don’t have enough appeal to entice many existing Android and iPhone users to switch to BlackBerry. On top of that, the prices of the Torch 9850 ($200) and the Bold 9900/9930 ($250 to $300, depending on the carrier) are much too high for 3G phones. These BlackBerrys are sufficient to keep RIM in the smartphone arms race, but they won’t help the company gain many new customers. For example, why would you choose the 3G, single-core BlackBerry Torch 9850 on Sprint when you can select the dual-core, 4G HTC EVO 3D for only $50 more? Besides having superior hardware, the EVO offers access to the Android Market, which has far more apps than the BlackBerry App World (250,000 apps versus 37,276 apps).

At the very least, RIM's efforts to play catch-up show that it is monitoring the competition and trying to remain relevant in this oh-so-crazy mobile world. Still, having to play catch-up isn’t an ideal strategic position to be in, and it isn’t as though BlackBerry 7 OS adds any groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind features. When the Windows Phone 7 Mango update came out, many critics accused Microsoft of playing catch-up, as it added vital features such as third-party multitasking. But other observers applauded Mango because of the unique features it added to Bing, such as a localized search function (for finding nearby restaurants or attractions) and a music-recognition engine. On the bright side, the performance difference between BlackBerry 6 OS and BlackBerry 7 OS is clearcut, and I'm excited to see where RIM goes with near-field communication (NFC). Currently only available for the Bold 9900, NFC lets you make payments with your phone and exchange information (such as a phone number or photo) with another NFC-enabled phone.

Overall, though, I think BlackBerry OS is in dire need of a face-lift. As I've been saying for some time, BlackBerry’s user interface doesn't feel modern. In some ways it reminds me of Windows Phone 6.5. It looks like a nontouch OS with touch support added in. You have to dig through multiple menus to find what you want. For example, to switch from still images to video in the camera interface, you have to press the Menu key and then scroll almost all the way down through the options to get to the video camera.

In my opinion, RIM needs to take a page from Microsoft and rebuild the BlackBerry OS from scratch, as Microsoft did with its mobile OS. Simply introducing updates here and there won’t cut it.

QNX OS: RIM’s Hail Mary?

Rumored BlackBerry Colt
The news on upcoming BlackBerry hardware isn’t encouraging. Earlier this month, we saw leaked images (from BGR) of the first QNX phone, dubbed the BlackBerry Colt. Acccording to rumor, the Colt will arrive in the first quarter of 2012, and it reportedly will ship with a single-core CPU. If so, a full year after the first Android dual-core phones appeared, BlackBerry still won’t have a dual-core handset. And like the PlayBook, the Colt may launch without support for BlackBerry's Enterprise Server. If that rumor proves to be true, you’ll have to use Microsoft's ActiveSync in order to use Exchange email. Considering that the BlackBerry Enterprise Server has a pretty large corporate customer base, I have to ask: Why would RIM shut out its own customers from its latest product again? Will RIM repeat the mistake it made with the PlayBook and rush a half-baked, unfinished product to market?

Perhaps the most disturbing news I've seen recently is that RIM just this week released the beta of the native SDK for QNX tablet apps to developers. Yes, that’s four months after it released the BlackBerry PlayBook. Even worse, the SDK is a closed beta, and RIM warns that "interested developers should apply to the beta quickly as space is limited and will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis." This approach isn’t exactly welcoming toward the developer community, is it? A lack of apps is one of the big reasons why BlackBerry OS is struggling in the mobile phone space, so why is RIM making the same mistakes with QNX? RIM should have made the beta open--or at least not put up a message discouraging interested developers from applying.

Learning From Others' Mistakes

RIM can learn from the mistakes that Palm and then HP made with WebOS. A poor marketing strategy, lack of apps, and dated hardware were the main reasons WebOS failed in the marketplace. And like WebOS, BlackBerry OS is a good operating system. BlackBerry’s enterprise offerings remain unmatched, and nobody builds as good a physical hardware keyboard as RIM. But RIM needs to be building features, hardware, and software that can compete with its rivals two years from now--not trying to make up ground on phones that have already come out.

RIM’s OS makeover needs to be perfect in order to succeed. Remember the disastrous BlackBerry Storm? RIM definitely doesn't want to go through that kind of debacle again. Apparently RIM has tried to play it safe after that fiasco, but I think it's time to take another risk. BlackBerry 7 OS barely keeps RIM afloat--and sadly, QNX and the upcoming BlackBerry phones don’t look too promising either.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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