Research in Motion's stock has been rallying of late (and is up about 60% off its low for the year), driven in part by rumors of a takeover or similar equity transaction, and partially by a degree of optimism that the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS, due on 30 January of next year, will actually ignite sales. I don't see how this is possible and I remain very pessimistic about RIM's future.
Why? Because operating systems are no longer important. Since there's obviously a huge battle between Android and iOS continuing, this statement of course seems ludicrous at face value. But consider what an OS really does: it makes the difficult world of bare metal reasonable, it performs task, file, and other management, it provides a user interface (UI), and, most importantly today, it implements a platform for applications. Why, really, is iOS such a big deal? I have an iPhone and iPad in production use, but I personally dislike the UI and the lack of native OS functionality (a file system, for example), as I've previously noted, and iOS is a toy compared to OS X, again for example. Android represents the necessary vacuum-filling alternative, just as we've almost always had Windows vs. Mac as a market fixture. Android is Linux with embellishments, so it appeals to developers and also offers lower costs than the other alternatives out there like, oh, say, Windows Phone 8, which is, by the way, also likely a loser.
But is Android or iOS successful because they're just darned good operating systems? No - it's because of market timing and especially a fundamental emphasis on apps. Today it really is all about the apps. Who really cares what the underlying OS is, as long as one can run the apps they desire? Thus, will developers flock to BB 10 or WP 8? No, and why should they? Does that underlying OS or even the hardware of products incorporating either of these offer some kind of sustainable competitive advantage big enough to justify the opportunity cost inherent in writing or porting code? While there will indeed be some contra-thinkers (contra-developers?) out there, the big answer is no. And the economic proposition of OS vendors paying for apps to be ported really isn't viable anymore. In short, unless BB10 or WP8 can offer that sustainable advantage, they are toast. And I have no idea what such an advantage might be. Again, it's timing and apps - both RIM and MS coulda been contenders here, but they blew it through arrogance and failing to see how the world around them was changing. All too often, denial equals death - such is practically the history of IT overall.
OK - one idea for meaningful differentiation might be in innovations in user interface. I've always felt that UIs should be differentiated if a demonstrable benefit can be quantified in so doing (noting here the pushback from many over "fragmentation" in the Android space with respect to customized UIs). I kind of like the tiled interface on Windows 8, but, when you think about it, this is just a minor evolution of the icons we've been using all along. And wholesale changes in UI, as I noted back when I attempted to use Windows Vista (which convinced me to move to Macs), have serious costs associated with them with respect to training, support, reliability, and dealing with unintentional errors. So UI alone won't do it, I'm afraid.
So, then, why would carriers be expressing interest, again as has been reported, in BB 10? Well, there's no harm in looking. But I suspect the real motivation - since the carriers, too, incur increasing support costs as their platform diversity increases - is simply to put their current suppliers on notice that another alternative might be available if a better price isn't in the offing. The carriers, I believe, couldn't care less about operating systems; they're in it for the money. And neither RIM not Microsoft can afford to buy into the game in a big way here, especially as market timing works so heavily against them.
And on that note, a pleasant Thanksgiving to all.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.