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After a rise and fall, BlackBerry 10 is RIM’s last, best comeback attempt

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The year was 1999 when Research In Motion(s rimm) first unveiled its initial BlackBerry email pager, the beginning of a strong product brand that continues to this day. In that time, the ubiquitous BlackBerry has grown beyond a simple email machine to capable smartphones in 2003, gathering a cult-like following of “crackberry” users.

blackberrysGiven that success, it once seemed unfathomable that RIM wouldn’t easily be one of the world’s top 5 smartphone makers, yet in 2012 it barely held on to the fifth spot as Samsung, Apple, Nokia and HTC sold more smartphones. Put in perspective: RIM’s 32.5 million smartphones sold all year were easily trumped by Apple(s aapl) 47.8 million handsets sold in the final quarter of 2012 alone.

As quickly as RIM’s BlackBerry rose to the top in the first half of the last decade, it just as quickly fell behind the touchscreen smartphone revolution started by Apple(s aapl) in 2007. Now, after several years of losing market share and stalling growth of its BlackBerry subscriber base, RIM is rebooting the product line this week with the debut of BlackBerry 10.

Not the first time for a comeback effort

This isn’t the first of RIM’s attempts to compete with the current crop of smartphones. 2008 saw RIM debut the BlackBerry Storm, an all touch device that created little more than a drizzle in the market. In 2010, the company launched the BlackBerry Torch 9800 along with the BlackBerry 6 operating system and a WebKit browser. But after using an evaluation device, I felt — as did others, based on meager sales — the Torch was an evolution of the same old BlackBerry experience, not the revolution that RIM really needed at the time.

playbook4Aware that it needed something new for the future, that same year saw RIM purchase QNX Software Solutions from Harman International. At the time, QNX was used for many in-car information and entertainment systems. RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet was the first RIM product to use a QNX-based platform and while it was good at what it did, the slate was missing key features: A native email client for one, and direct access to RIM’s popular BBM messaging service.

Amid those feature misses and lackluster sales, I suggested that RIM made a mistake by putting QNX on a tablet before using it to power BlackBerry smartphones. In hindsight, however, it appears that RIM had little choice: It was reportedly having problems getting the BBM service on PlayBooks because the service is limited to a single device per user. And it took nearly a year to get a native email app on the tablet. It appears to me now — as it did then — that RIM was simply trying to beat others into the nascent and quickly growing tablet market that began in earnest with the iPad in 2010. As a result, it launched a product well before perfecting the experience.

So why is this time different?

We’ll know more after Wednesday’s BB 10 launch in New York City, but hints of potential success for RIM are popping up all over the web. First up is the hardware, expected to be two initial handsets; one with a physical keyboard and one, dubbed the Z10, without. From the various leaked images and video of what’s likely a developer phone model in use, they appear perfectly capable and comparable in performance to other high-end smartphones available today.

bb10-iphone5What about the operating system? Considering that RIM originally planned to have a new platform on phones by early 2012, it has had an extra year to work on BB 10. That year proved tumultuous with the co-CEOs stepping down, market share dropping, pleas to developers to stay the course and barely any growth in BlackBerry subscribers. From the little bit of BB 10 I’ve seen so far, however, the wait may be worth it.

Expect to hear much about BlackBerry Flow at the launch event: This is RIM’s tightly integrated method of quickly navigating through the operating system in a consistent manner. BlackBerry Hub is the centralized communications center while the BlackBerry software keyboard should provide for fast, accurate entry.

There’s more to smartphone success than hardware and the OS, however. It seems like RIM has also learned the lesson that mobile apps and content deals are also important. On the app side, the company has put enormous effort into courting developers, even poking fun at itself in a music video. (Hear what RIM’s Alec Saunders has to say about that in our podcast interview.)

As a result, tens of thousands of apps are likely to be available once the new devices launch. And just today, RIM shared details of its unified content store, listing out all of the media partners, along with news of next-day television content availability. Add in support from carriers — all four major operators in the US plan to sell the new BlackBerry devices — and the puzzle pieces of potential are all there.

The most likely outcome

What are the odds that Research In Motion has a hit with the new BlackBerry 10 devices? I’ll have a better idea when I attend the launch event, of course — and I’ll be live-blogging from there — but based on the limited information I have so far, RIM should at least be staying in the smartphone game.

As I’ve said to many over the past few months, the new devices should appeal to current BlackBerry owners. My unanswered question now is: Will there be enough to sway people away from iOS and Android(s goog) phones? Until we know more, I think it’s a safe bet that RIM keeps its current user-base happy and possibly steals some market share from its peers.

Either way, if RIM delivers what I expect in BB 10, it stays relevant in a market where nearly 6 billion people don’t yet have a smartphone. There’s much growth to be found yet, even if BB 10 doesn’t unseat the current smartphone incumbents. But even with the right recipe and ingredients, there’s no guarantees for RIM. Challenges still loom for the company as whole and maintaining a sliver of market share may not be enough for the long road ahead.

12 Responses to “After a rise and fall, BlackBerry 10 is RIM’s last, best comeback attempt”

  1. “It stays relevant in a market where nearly 6 billion people don’t yet have a smartphone”. That figure is notorious. I guess your assuming every age from birth. The bottom line is RIM is OUT! They struggled with the playbook, and was suppose to gain significant market share and it didnt. It was undeveloped and they scrambled and unable to compete with the current tablets. I envisage the blackberry 10 to be the same. I use to own the blackberry and use it for business, but switched to the iphone. The blackberry was dated and the amount of apps was nowhere comparable to the Android or Iphone APP store. Im sure the blackberry 10 will be competitive, but people want more apps and more functionality with their phone. This is where blackberry falls short. If they want to be competitive, its not in the phone, but what the phone can offer the consumer (ie. more apps etc). I wish them luck, they have a steep hill to climb.

  2. Mark Grady

    Why does everyone think RIM is a one-trick pony?

    Handsets are one part of the business but the majority of its operation is its infrastructure services, the part of the business that’s not really seen any adverse problems, despite the well publicised outages it’s had occasionally over the past couple of years (outages that cause more outrage than when the carriers have outages, stopping not only BBM,email, et cetera, but also basic voice and text communications, but that don’t generate anywhere near as much ire and bile, bizarrely).

    RIM aren’t just launching new handsets, they’re launching the new BlackBerry Enterprise Services 10 as well, which will include VoIP services, multi-device management (including iOS and Android devices) and a whole host of other features, ultimately, in a single management environment, even allowing legacy BES5 systems to be managed from there too.

    Whilst businesses and governments want secure email and messaging delivery to the standard RIM currently provide you’ll see the BlackBerry brand still alive and kicking as no-one else in the market offers the same levels of security and resilience. Let’s face it, BlackBerry is the only device and infrastructure certified for use by heads of state.

    • Granting its users free browsing, no data charges for its chat programs PLUS the security & privacy it offers – my goodness, I will support them during their evolution.

      Great job RIM, you’re in a league of your own.

  3. Gregg Borodaty

    I’m sure BlackBerry will get a little bump after Wednesday’s event, if nothing else, from their loyal followers. So in the short term, the safe bet is that they see some success. The big questions is what they are able to do to sustain any momentum they might generate. For starters, they better shorten their product release cycle to less than 2 years between iterations.

    I’m still in the camp of too little, too late, but time will tell. It will certainly be interesting to watch, at least from the outside looking in.

  4. turbulentsilverfox

    Whatever anyone says about Blackberry – I still maintain to this day that my old Blackberry 8800 was probably the best phone I ever owned, for functionality, battery life, longevity of the hardware etc.

    Great legacy.

  5. Alex Quilici

    The big question is around whether and when developers will invest in the platform.

    It’s really clear as a mobile app developer you have to prioritize iPhone and Android first, which we at YouMail have done. That means a lot of companies just won’t have that extra developer to either build or port to BB10 and won’t want to hire them until there is significant momentum. And without the apps that people have grown to use – not just something like Facebook, but the mobile banking app or the app for the local shopping mall or your kid’s favorite game, it’s going to be very difficult to get people to give up their Galaxy or their iPhone. We wish them luck, but it’s just not clear that it makes sense to put cycles into a new platform vs. improving an existing app until that platform gets significant (15%? 20%?) market share.

    • Totally valid points, Alex. My concern is that we won’t have a 3rd platform get to 15 / 20 percent of share. For every developer, that traction / sales percentage will vary of course, but if we don’t have devs take a chance at some point, these lower selling platforms will never take root. It’s a chicken & egg problem for sure.

    • JGsmartypants

      Alex, I think RIM has a powerful weapon in its arsenal: the ability to fallback on Android apps for the local bank, the shopping mall, and the other apps that are too small in scale but too great in number for RIM to be able to court. They can get those in store with minimal effort. This is of course inferior to a dedicated BB10 app, but it also superior to no app.

      As BB10 grows, we would hopefully see more devs wanting to make a superior experience by going full native. I expect Jolla to follow a similar strategy, and I think it is the best possible strategy they can take.

  6. Erik Lagerway

    Great article Kevin. From experience I can tell you that Flow kicks ass. We have a small shop building on BB10 dev devices and they are solid. Great nav via Flow, great camera, great messaging and social integration.

    The one big complaint I personally have with the iPhone line is the keyboard, it is the weak feature on all the iPhone versions. This new BB10 keyboard and predictive text functionality feels much more polished.

    We are an Apple shop but I would have no problem switching to this new BlackBerry device in the near future.

    Wishing Alec and the rest of the team the very best on this launch.

    • Andrew Geleff

      I’m really glad to hear that the BB10 keyboard is up to par with the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, which I’ve always preferred for capacitive text entry. Android keyboards have always been a struggle for me to get used to, and I find that they’ll lag behind the words that I’m actually typing more often than not. I’m a rapid typist on my smartphones and I want something that will keep up. If the BlackBerry Z10 can hold up with my typing speed, I may go the full touch route. If it can’t, you’ll find me in the QWERTY arena. Either way, I’m going to own a BlackBerry 10 device. For how long is the question.