RIM BlackBerry Smartphone Forecast: Grim, With Hope on the Horizon

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Playing Catch-Up

RIM has made several moves in recent months to deal with the shortcomings of its touchscreens. In April 2010, the company purchased QNX Software Systems, known for its industrial-grade operating system found in car dashboard systems and in mission-critical operations such as air-traffic control networks. RIM plans to use QNX software as the basis for the next generation of BlackBerry handsets, expected in 2012.

In late 2010, the company also acquired The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a software company admired for its user interface designs for mobile handsets. TAT is said to be creating a touch-centric user interface for BlackBerry handsets.

RIM Refresh

The company's product overhaul probably won't be complete until 2012, but you can see hints of RIM's new acquisitions in some of its currently available products. In April, the company introduced the QNX-based BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM's first attempt at a slate to rival Apple's iPad. The tablet was relatively well received; RIM said that it shipped 500,000 PlayBooks to retailers during the slate's first three months of availability. It's not clear how many of those shipped PlayBooks ended up being sold to consumers.

"In some respects, the PlayBook is the most impressive tablet I've seen to date," Melissa J. Perenson reported in PCWorld's PlayBook review. "Its approach to navigating among open apps is a joy; I was able to move among them faster than on any other tablet."

The PlayBook also has some multitasking advantages over many competing tablets. For example, you can display a high-definition 1080p video on your TV via HDMI while still using the tablet to surf the Web or work on an office document.

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
But the PlayBook also shipped with some serious shortcomings, too. The tablet lacked RIM's popular BlackBerry Messenger software, and--despite coming from a company famous for its email management software--it arrived without a native email client. Instead, non-BlackBerry handset users had to satisfy themselves with access to webmail services such as Hotmail and Gmail. (For their part, BlackBerry users can pair the PlayBook with a BlackBerry handset to view email from their phone on the tablet's larger screen.)

Despite criticism for shipping a BlackBerry tablet without native email, Rick Costanzo, RIM's regional managing director for the Americas, is bullish on the new tablet; he says that the PlayBook works very well for RIM's existing customer base. "The PlayBook caused a lot of people to buy BlackBerrys," Costanzo added.

A promised native email client for the PlayBook is rumored to be on track to arrive this month, alongside BlackBerry Messenger for the PlayBook. Costanzo wouldn't confirm any launch dates, but he did say that the company continues to iterate and improve its products and that PlayBook fans should see more updates soon.

The App Gap

Another problem facing the PlayBook is the relatively small number of third-party apps available for it, compared to rival slates such as the Apple iPad and various Android tablets (the Motorola Xoom, for instance). When the PlayBook launched, users had access to some 3000 apps for it, versus 100,000 apps for the more established iPad. To bolster the PlayBook's app numbers, RIM plans to release an Android player that enables users to run Android apps on the PlayBook. This would improve the PlayBook's so-called app gap by making thousands of additional apps available to run on RIM's tablet.

At least that's the theory. However, even though RIM has said that Android developers won't find it difficult to adapt their apps to work on the PlayBook, the PlayBook's Android advantage (also rumored to be coming to BlackBerry's QNX handsets in 2012) may not be as smooth and seamless as advertised. "I think Android compatibility has been oversold," Dulaney says. The problem, in his view, is that developers will have to recompile the app, making the process akin to developing for another platform. The big issue, according to Dulaney: "BlackBerry and Android controls are very different. It's an act of desperation [by RIM] to beef up their app store."

Other analysts aren't so sure and caution against judging the PlayBook's Android compatibility before it ships with the Android player. "Criticism against the Android player is probably jumping the gun. It's important to evaluate it, but I think it's likely that RIM wouldn't launch Android compatibility without it being a reasonable experience," says Abramsky.

The consensus among analysts, critics, and users is that third-party apps are an integral part of normal smartphone and tablet use by consumers. The key for RIM will be to attract more developers to create native apps for its devices, thereby bolstering the brand's image with smartphone and tablet shoppers.

Enterprise Holding Strong

Though RIM faces challenges in the consumer arena, it remains the dominant smartphone brand among enterprise users, at least for the immediate future. Apple is making some inroads among enterprises largely through the so-called "consumerization of IT," in which employees insist on using their own devices for work instead of relying on a company-issued handset. Android makers are going after large corporate deployments, too. In late August, Lenovo launched a 10-inch Android-based ThinkPad tablet aimed at business users, and Motorola recently acquired 3LM, a company looking to make Android more enterprise-friendly. Now that Google intends to acquire Motorola, Android's enterprise effort may go even further.

The outlook may look grim for BlackBerry, but don't count RIM out just yet, say the analysts and dedicated BlackBerry users I spoke to. With a run of new QNX-based handsets expected in 2012, upgrades to the PlayBook in the works, popular services such as BlackBerry Messenger, and a loyal subscriber base of 67 million, BlackBerry could be poised for a rebound in the U.S. market--even as its popularity grows overseas.

'"RIM is getting beaten up a lot, but I think people will give them another chance," says Dulaney. "RIM has to get apps optimized for its environment and get the user interface right for touch. Do that well, and the people will come."

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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