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Summary:

The pressure is mounting on Research In Motion ahead of the launch of its PlayBook, which will debut April 19. But RIM’s success over the next few years will hinge on its QNX operating system, not on a piece of hardware.

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Despite revenues that will likely fall short of expectations this quarter, plenty of speculation remains about whether Research in Motion’s forthcoming PlayBook can help shore up the company’s waning relevance in the world of mobile. The key, however, to stay in the race against Apple and Google isn’t hardware, but rather, RIM’s new QNX operating system.

Right now, RIM’s biggest vulnerability is an aging BlackBerry OS that simply is inferior in many ways to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android systems. BlackBerry’s superior security technology aside, the OS doesn’t offer the easy navigation and multimedia support that has fueled the popularity of Android and iOS. Those are shortcomings RIM promised to address last year with the release of the Torch, the first handset to run BlackBerry 6. But as my colleague Kevin C. Tofel noted in August, the handset was an evolution rather than a revolution. In other words, it’s apparent that there is only so much upgrading RIM can do with BlackBerry. That helps explain why Android recently surpassed BlackBerry’s U.S. market share, according to Nielsen.

There’s a lot to like about QNX, though, which powers the PlayBook and is expected to come to RIM handsets later this year. It can enable full Flash and HTML5 capabilities, and it can deliver the kind of rich, immersive experiences that consumers have grown to expect on Android and iOS. It offers real 3-D graphics and optimized power, and its scalability will enable RIM to build a lineup of devices based on the OS, just as Apple is doing with iOS. RIM will surely need to iron out some wrinkles as QNX comes to mobile phones, but the platform shows tremendous promise.

The company still faces a few important challenges, of course, including luring developers to its platform and coming up with a slick new handset or two. But if RIM is still a major player in mobile a few years from now, it will be because of QNX and its supporting ecosystem, not a new piece of hardware. For more thoughts on what QNX means for RIM, please see my weekly column at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image source: Flickr user Brenda-Starr.

  1. Yeah, but they don’t seem so convinced, which is why you won’t see a QNX phone until 2012. Their roadmap for 2011 was leaked and their “high-end” phone for September this year will be a 1.2 Ghz BB OS device. By 2012 it’s probably going to be way to late even for WP7, let alone QNX to make a move in the market.

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    1. There are reports that RIM could be producing hybrid BlackBerry/QNX phones in the next few months, Lucian. (I discuss that in the Pro piece.) If they can do that, it will be a modest but important step in the right direction. If you’re right that we don’t see QNX handsets until next year, then yeah, RIM faces a much tougher challenge.

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  2. the BB OS is dated sure, but these devices are also running on older, less capable hardware. From what you said in your post, it is the UI, not the OS that is the problem. QNX is a beast and the acquisition by RIM has been hailed as one of the best tech moves of 2010. Apple’s iOS UI too is aging, but they seemed to have a hit with it. It’s gonna be interesting to see what the future holds.

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    1. I think RIM’s problems with BlackBerry are both the UI and the OS itself, and those problems overlap. And I think there are parallels with Nokia, which struggled mightily to upgrade Symbian’s UI before capitulating to Microsoft and Windows Phone.

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    2. Yes the iOS UI is getting old but at least it works. Which can’t be said about Android. If Android get’s the quality control in order where you can buy from any phone manufacturer and have a decent user experience out of the box then Apple will have something to worry about.

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  3. QNX would have been a phenomenal acquisition… for a company that could really focus on growing a separate division. As mobile devices continue to be low in power but the range of applications and functionality continues to grow, resource management (through some solid embedded virtualization) could be an excellent and OS-agnostic place to own ground. For example, there is still a problem of latency in push messaging over cellular networks whether its email, in app pushes, etc. (ever wonder why that SMS comes in right away, but the email can take a while?) Blackberry exchange with QNX software on the client can help provide a QoS system for prioritized messaging (selling to app developers, maybe ad networks, and splitting revenues with the carrier) and continue to sell *pro* systems to the enterprise. Using messaging as a beachhead, they can then continue to move into other areas where QoS maybe an issue such as network-connected gaming, video conferencing, etc.

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  4. I generally agree with your thoughts Colin but for different reasons. QNX is absolutely key for RIM and executing on the promise is going to be their biggest challenge to date – they can’t squander this great chance to expand their product line and reach and this is where the QNX OS is so important.

    RIM generates the majority of their revenue on the hardware – just like Apple does – but they only have one line of revenue from hardware and that is from their smartphones (and now the Playbook). The QNX acquisition really opens up the market for them – the OS is already in cars and could/will be used in other consumer and enterprise products. Expanding their product lines – outside of mobile – is what they really need to do to compete with the other players. Having one product line is really their problem today.

    One last note, I don’t think that BlackBerry 6 is the only reason that Android surpassed RIM as the dominant player…I’m not sure anything could have stopped that from happening just because of the sheer number of devices and manufacturers that have adopted the OS.

    More food for thought.

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