Opinion: Does BlackBerry still have the juice?

What to expect at RIM's annual user conference

Research in Motion faces huge challenges in its battle to survive and they'll all be on attendees' minds at this week at RIM's annual BlackBerry World conference in Orlando. What will also be on our minds: the ticking clock counting down the time RIM has left to turn around its fortunes.

RIM has a complex juggling act on its hands: introducing a new software platform, gaining developer support, creating new hardware, gaining user support, igniting and sustaining a mutually reinforcing ecosystem, and doing so before it runs out of what little room it has left, as sales contract and its stock price plunges.

The software focus: platform and UI

In 2010 RIM announced it was acquiring QNX Software, which offered a modern, modular, well-designed, real-time operating system kernel. The first BlackBerry branded mobile product with the new OS was the underwhelming PlayBook tablet. But then almost all tablets except Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle and Kindle Fire have been underwhelming.

BACKGROUND: 11 not entirely useless factoids about RIM

RIM's future hinges on the QNX code, currently in the form of PlayBook OS 2.0 and eventually to be released as BlackBerry 10. The operating system and the user interface on top of it has to be embraced both by developers and consumers.

RIM's new CEO, Thorsten Heins, has been criticized for early comments about staying the course, about not needing radical changes. Most of the criticism misses his point: The adoption of QNX as the next OS platform is a radical break with RIM's software heritage. Applications written for the current BlackBerry 7 OS can't be carried forward into BlackBerry 10. Heins is in agreement that the software revolution begun at RIM over the past year or so is essential to the company's future.

RIM has been rapidly increasing the resources it devotes to building relationships with software developers. They have to be convinced that RIM's new mobile platform is worth writing software.

There are some indications that it is. RIM reports that monthly app downloads, for PlayBook and the still-existing BlackBerry 7 smartphones, average 6 million or more; and that a high percentage of those are paid apps. Though both figures trail the comparable numbers for Apple iOS, the difference is narrower than many would have thought, and greater, says RIM, than Android. In addition, RIM claims that apps for the PlayBook -- the first test for the new mobile OS -- have been burgeoning, and registered developers are increasing in number.

At the same time, what RIM has to offer now and for the next few months, at least, are the existing BlackBerry products running BlackBerry OS 7. It may offer new incentives to developers and end users to prop up sales.

Evolving the UI may be trickier. RIM's early UI designs succeeded because the functions were simple and bandwidth was limited. What's changed with the iPhone touch interface is that simplicity is a design that masks a lot of complexity. At the same time, touch creates the sensation of direct and immediate user interaction with or control over the device's capabilities, unmediated by a mouse, touchpad, trackball or keyboard.

The hardware question mark

RIM is passing out to developers this week some number of smartphone-like prototypes so coders can begin to design and test BlackBerry 10 apps. Purported photos of the prototype have surfaced in the last couple of days, including these at CrackBerry.com. The pictures show the impact of Apple's iPhone and the limits of the basic design: Currently, smartphones are rectangular screens that fit more or less into one's palm.

As RIM pivoted from the enterprise to the consumer space, its sales skyrocketed quarter after quarter, as consumers paid for a growing range of BlackBerry phone models offering the distinctive qwerty keyboard with various-size screens. But in the past two quarters, sales have plunged, even with the advent of BlackBerry 7 OS and the mid-2010 release of the full-touch BlackBerry Torch smartphone. The value of the brand seems to have suddenly collapsed, almost as fast as a punctured balloon.

RIM has prided itself on its engineering. But few would call the early BlackBerry email handsets beautiful or elegant. The heritage of RIM's design has been its focus on engineering, not style. And for many, especially younger consumers, email is far less important than communication via social networks as diverse as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Has the software revolution at RIM coincided with a hardware and design revolution? The first phones running the new BB10 firmware are due out later this year, with the latest rumors pointing to August announcements and October releases. RIM's CEO could decide to give a peek at what's in development, or he could let it ride until new products are fully baked.

But as was the case with Nokia and Windows Phone 7, RIM's first BB10 phones may be evolutions of its current models, with more radical changes scheduled for 2013.

More software, on the backend

RIM's investment in the BlackBerry Enterprise Server is as much emotional as financial. The announcement of BlackBerry Mobile Fusion, as a new application for managing not just BlackBerry but iOS and Android devices, is a first attempt to leverage the BES strengths and apply them to the rapidly changing world of mobility.

A number of sessions at BlackBerry World have been scheduled to elaborate on the relationship and direction of BES, and Mobile Fusion. Historically, BES has been an enterprise play. It will be interesting to see if RIM brings the capabilities of BES forward into the consumer space, emphasizing issues that could resonant with end users as much as with enterprise IT professionals: configuring devices, optimizing both devices and apps, security and safety, and a doorway into a wider world of cloud-based services.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww john_cox@nww.com http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed



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