It's been looking rather bleak for BlackBerry maker Research in Motion for some time now, perhaps since 2007 when Apple released its first iPhone. It wasn't just how good the iPhone was, it was how badly RIM reacted to the launch: it did virtually nothing.
That's how it seemed to the outside world, anyway. Until now, that is. Announcing the biggest shake-up of its BlackBerry platform since - well ever - today's BB10 launch really is make or break for the firm. That's because Research in Motion has lost about half its former smartphone market share in the last year alone, and its installed base actually declined for the first time, by two million, in its latest quarter.
Of course some of that is because people were waiting to upgrade to BB10, but the firm is under no illusions as to just how butt-kickingly good BB10 needs to be. It's pulling out all of the stops, and bar having a hologram of Steve Jobs confirming that RIM is back in the game, it's difficult to imagine it doing much more.
For starters, it's used the day of the BB10 announcement to also announce that it's changing its company name from RIM to BlackBerry. A statement of intent if ever there was one. Want some bling? The firm also announced its new global creative director is the singer-songwriter Alicia Keys.
I'm not sure that's the shrewdest move in the world, by the way. BlackBerry connotes a fun, fresh and feisty image, in my view, which was always nicely balanced for business users with the sense that at least the company behind their 'CrackBerrys' sounded pretty serious: Research in Motion. Also, us journos are now going to have to keep saying things like 'Blackberry launched another new BlackBerry'.
But it's not just the name change that RIM, sorry BlackBerry, is using to draw attention to this make-or break BB10 announcement. It did simultaneous launches in numerous cities, including London, Dubai, Paris, New York, Jakarta, Johannesburg and Toronto. Two 'portathons' helped port 15,000 and 19,000 apps to the new platform at each event. There are already 70,000 apps ready and waiting for BB10, including Skype, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Indeed BlackBerry claims 1,000 top applications from around the world remain committed to the platform. 650 carriers around the world are working with BlackBerry to bring the platform to the market.
That's good news for BlackBerry, which has been nursing mounting losses and had to drastically reduce its headcount. Why? Because of the 700 million smartphones shipped last year, 92% of them were sold by Apple or ran the Android operating system.
RIM realised it needed to do something drastic. A new CEO took over from founder, co-CEO and technician Mike Lazaridis, and co-CEO Jim Balsillie. The new man was Thorsten Heins.
Anyway BB10 is also significant from a technical point of view. While all previous BlackBerry operating systems were built using Java technology, BB10 is an altogether different animal. BB10 is based on the QNX embedded operating system it bought from Harman International Industries in April 2010.
The demos of the first two phones to run BB10 I have seen today, make the new OS look mightily slick and efficient, and some are already saying it's better than iOS on the iPhone. But one thing Lazaridis got absolutely right was security: Java's sandboxing technology was always an advantage, helping earlier RIM operating systems to achieve the highest security certifications required by organisations like the US Army. RIM will want to achieve - or even better maintain - those certifications at all costs.
So what does it all mean, really? Will it stem BlackBerry's losses and help the company regain lost market share? RIM launched its first BlackBerry in 1999, remember - Apple came along and rained on its parade with the first iPhone a full eight years later.
I've already reported that analyst firm Ovum believes BB10 is too little, too late. Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at Ovum, concluded in a research note that, "[RIM's] glory days are past, and it is only a matter of time before it reaches a natural end." According to Dawson, the launch of BB10 will, "not save RIM."
Gartner is far less negative. Phillip Redman, research vice president in Gartner Research, where he leads mobile research in the network services and infrastructure group, penned a blog he called 'RIM Begins Its Comeback Year With BES 10 Launch'.
"In the famous words of Monty Python, it's, 'not dead yet!'," said Redman. "The fact is RIM has not seen even close to the same level of decline in BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) installs. Though I think that will increase this year as companies migrate off of the platform - I see a lot of business going to managed and hosted BES at some enterprises. A Gartner survey from December 2012 of 222 companies, primarily in North America, said that almost 14% will still have BlackBerry as its primary platform in 12 months. Speaking with clients regularly, I see the same level of interest - generally 15-20% of mobile employees who still prefer RIM for its security and its hard keyboard."
"It's the user experience that will make the difference," Redman noted of the new OS, "which is where RIM focused its energies. From what I have seen, it pays off. The new BB10 offers the best UX on the market - not perfect, but certainly a rival to the iPhone 5, with even greater performance. The question is: will the market take it? So I'll go on record here saying that it will. Now I don't expect it to surpass iOS or Android sales, but I think this device has great comeback potential. And the fact that enterprises can support it using Exchange Active Synch offers a low impact solution if they don't upgrade to the BES 10."
However, striking a less optimistic note, the analyst also noted that having a great product doesn't always win you the race. There are other factors, like margins, distribution, brand equity and marketing. As Redman says, "RIM has a lot riding on the... announcements - maybe the future of the company. It will be an interesting year ahead."
BB10 looks good, perhaps better than the iPhone experience. But I fear it may be too late: six years have gone by since Apple pulled the rug out from under RIM with the launch of the iPhone. What do you think - will BB10 'save' BlackBerry?
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