Why BlackBerry 10 will save RIM
Despite the tough road ahead, I'm cautiously optimistic about BlackBerry 10 and RIM's chances
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Research In Motion is planning to show off BlackBerry 10 at the end of the month and while the BlackBerry maker is facing a mountain of challenges, I can't help but root for RIM. I think if it can execute, the BlackBerry will once again be an iconic brand.
We've taken a deep look at BlackBerry 10 and it looks like a winner. What I really like about this approach is that RIM has finally written a new mobile platform from scratch and really thought about what we need and want from a modern smartphone.
The user interface itself isn't going to blow you away, but once you start playing with it, learn the gestures and see how intuitive and quick it is, I think BlackBerry 10 will have a lot of fans. It's a fresh take on modern computing: It's not just apps on a grid, it's not the Android free-for-all and it doesn't have the rigidity sometimes found in Windows Phone.
It's still a BlackBerry but what you would expect from the modern-day BlackBerry: mature and touch-friendly and it can do similar things as an iPhone or Android.
Your messaging and communications are still the core of the device and I think that's the right bet. Your BlackBerry Hub is always just a swipe away from what you're doing and from here you can get quick access to your messages, contact information and more. I believe RIM is letting some core third-party apps like Twitter and Facebook hook into this, so users will likely want to access this often.
I also think that BlackBerry Balance will actually be a compelling feature. This creates a separate part of your phone for your business and personal data and you can toggle between the two with a tap of a button. Let's say the company wants to wipe your device remotely; with Balance, it will only be able to wipe the corporate side, so your personal pictures and information are still there. RIM's death grip on the enterprise has loosened as many companies are going toward a bring-your-own-device policy (Samsung is trying to capitalize on this in its latest ads), but Balance could make it very attractive for businesses and consumers alike.
The hardware is also shaping up nicely, as the BlackBerry Z10 and X10 will reportedly be introduced at the end of the month and both are competitive with other high-end smartphones. Look for a high-quality screen, multi-core processor, great camera with interesting software and more when these land. Reports also suggest the Z10 may land for as little as $149 on a new contract, so I'm sure that will be plenty tempting.
You have stunning new software on good hardware, so what can go wrong?
I worry that the competition may already be too far ahead of RIM for BlackBerry 10 to matter.
Until the last year, it seemed like RIM was running in place while Android and iPhone were galloping ahead. The last BlackBerry of consequence was the Torch and that smartphone still wasn't widely considered great when it was released two years ago. Meanwhile, Apple has sold tens of millions of iPhones and Android has gone on to dominate global usage stats and produce iconic phones like the Galaxy S3.
Needless to say, it's going to be tough to break through. Nearly 50 percent of Americans already have smartphones and those looking to get one already know that the iPhone and Android are great choices. Microsoft is also trying to get people to consider Windows Phone and it is delivering great hardware like the HTC 8X. Additionally, RIM is going to have to educate new and existing users about how BlackBerry 10 is different from previous versions and why users would want it.
It's not an impossible task but it's a tough one, especially when you consider that RIM likely won't have the marketing dollars that Apple and Samsung have. Advertising matters a lot in the mobile space, as AT&T and Verizon routinely spend the most on television ads and all the major sports teams have a mobile carrier as a sponsor. Apple's TV ads are instantly recognizable even without the sound on and Samsung seems to have a never-ending supply of marketing ammunition.
RIM is going to have to make better ads than its competitors without having the same resources. I can instantly think of previous Apple and Samsung ads but I can't remember a single ad RIM has ever produced. That's not a good starting point.
Despite the good news we've heard about BlackBerry World, RIM is still going to be behind the competition when it comes to the quality and quantity of apps. Developers have had time to play with the BlackBerry 10 SDK, but it takes a while to master that and optimize apps for real-world settings and hardware. RIM will also have a tough time convincing developers to make apps for a platform that may or may not succeed -- Microsoft is still trying to catch up to Android and iPhone on the app front and it's three years into its quest.
Oh, as an aside: I did see an Instagram icon on a BlackBerry 10 device at CES 2013 but the image could have been photoshopped or been a placeholder. Still, having something like Instagram would be a huge win for RIM and we know for sure that it will have apps like Foursquare, Twitter and some big-name games. RIM is also letting developers use a wide variety of programming languages for apps, so maybe it will be able to lessen the app gap.
There's another really stiff challenge that no one's talking about: RIM has stayed afloat over the last few years thanks to its growth in emerging markets with devices like the Curve, but it's unclear when it will have a low-cost, mass-market BlackBerry 10 device ready. Those Curves and Bolds, which are selling well in Jakarta and Sao Paulo, won't be upgradable to BlackBerry 10 and it's not a guarantee that those BlackBerry users will move to the next generation of RIM's software, especially when there are a ton of cheap Android phones.
Thin margin of error
The good news is that RIM may have the pieces in place to mount a serious comeback. The bad news is there's nothing in its recent history to suggest that RIM can execute properly.
Its first counter to the iPhone was the BlackBerry Storm and that was a piece of crap. Whether it's touch technology, app stores or even the browser, RIM has updated its products at a pace that still leaves it a step behind the competition. Heck, it doesn't even seem to be able to plan its conferences correctly, as its next developer event is happening at the same time as the next Google I/O. It's pretty clear which conference most developers would want to attend.
RIM has also shown a myopic vision for some of its other assets. For example, cross-platform messaging apps like WhatsApp, Kakao and Line have hundreds of millions of users because these offer a way to quickly and effectively connect with people without using their texting allotment. I'm convinced that a cross-platform BBM could have eaten these apps' lunch and RIM still could have kept some premium features BlackBerry only.
I've spent a lot of time beating up on RIM, so why do I think BlackBerry 10 can work? This is a different RIM.
With Thorsten Heins running the show, this isn't the same RIM that told me its OS didn't need a rewrite. Heins is fully aware of where the company is and has candidly admitted that it lost its way. He's brought in new executives, including a chief marketing officer, has modest goals to be in third place behind Android and iPhone and he hasn't shut the door on licensing out BlackBerry 10 eventually.
He probably could have pushed out BlackBerry 10 last year but he delayed it to make sure that it was ready. This was a costly decision as this meant it missed the all-important holiday season, but releasing a half-ready, crummy product would have been more damaging.
RIM has its advantages, too. Like Apple, RIM makes its own hardware and software, so it has control over the experience of its devices that even a company like Samsung can't claim. This means that it could possibly eek out better performance on somewhat lower-powered hardware through optimization.
The BlackBerry maker still has an entrenched base of users in enterprises and in the government and many of these users will find BlackBerry 10 to be light years ahead of their previous BlackBerry smartphones. It also has the aforementioned BBM and its own server infrastructure.
There's also still legitimate enthusiasm in the BlackBerry brand, even if it's been beaten down for the last five years. I liken it to being fans of the Golden State Warriors: There was a glorious history but a ton of mediocrity over the last few years, so now that there's a glimmer of hope, fans are ready to explode if the team can deliver.
RIM doesn't have to win a championship in order to be successful. The global smartphone market is growing at an exponential rate and being in that third place means RIM and BlackBerry 10 could still have tens of millions of users. That's enough to draw developers and make a nice profit margin.
But profit margins and average selling price only really matter if you hold RIM stock, so I'm rooting for RIM because I believe that BlackBerry 10 can prod the other manufacturers to step up their games. It's clear that Android and iPhone have "borrowed" from each other over the last few years and I think that's led to better experiences for users. BlackBerry 10 has some intelligent features that could "inspire" other platforms and that could boost the entire mobile ecosystem.
I also still have a soft spot for BlackBerry.
Of course, we'll be there live at the launch of the new BlackBerry 10 devices, so keep it locked on KnowYourCell.com.