Now that we've seen Research In Motion's vision for a vivid, rich mobile operating system for some kind of device -- probably a PlayBook, maybe a phone or two -- does BlackBerry have a chance by 2013 to regain the level of relevance it had in 2009? ReadWriteWeb talks at length with the world's best telecom and mobile platform analysts (pictured above, left to right):
Ross Rubin, Executive Director and Principal Analyst, NPD Connected Intelligence
Al Hilwa, Program Director for Applications Development Software, IDC
Jan Dawson, Chief Analyst, Ovum
Carmi Levy, Technology Analyst, CTV News Channel
Issue #1: Will developers take to BBX?
The principal battle in mobile development today is between the platform with the broadest overall user base (Android) and the one with the best-selling single device brand (Apple iPhone). RIM's BlackBerry OS used to be in that mix. BBX, however, is not BlackBerry OS, but a new mobile platform that RIM stated last week (perhaps without as much care to its own language as it should have shown) was best suited for tablets.
Not that tablets aren't hot right now, but iPad has a huge spread. Microsoft is leveraging its tablet platform on Windows 8 (as opposed to Windows Phone). HP saw the barriers to entry for webOS, turned tail, and ran. Will a positive message alone be enough for RIM to build a new developer base around BBX?
"There is definitely a chicken and egg issue with devices and developers," responds IDC's Al Hilwa. "Developers will not jump on devices unless they believe there is specific compelling differentiation. I think that positive differentiation was not visible with the PlayBook. Yes, there were some areas of excellence, but there were some serious gaps with respect to how the device was positioned, namely a general purpose device that does everything. That is a hard message to carry when it doesn't do e-mail and it has a weak application portfolio."
"I think slowly and belatedly, RIM is awakening to the reality that they have forgotten their developer community," says Carmi Levy, "and essentially let them twist in the wind for years with relatively little support, and almost a perspective of indifference compared to competitors like Apple and Google who actively court developers and partner with them to build their businesses. It's not that RIM couldn't gain traction; it's that it didn't even begin to have the conversation with developers. It wasn't putting itself in the position to start talking with developers; it was completely in another league."
Android, and in a different respect HTML5, are demonstrating that developers are willing to shift their focus from hardware to platforms, Apple being the exception (as it so often is). "Even if you have the greatest platform in the world, the lack of a platform strategy will ultimately kill you." RIM may be waking up to this fact today, adds Levy, who as a Canadian typically roots for RIM as the home team. But the BBX announcement consisted mainly of RIM preaching to its own choir. "The proof of the pudding will be over the next months, even years, as RIM hopefully begins to deliver on the promises it made in San Francisco."
NPD Group's Ross Rubin reminds us that BBX is a major platform shift that cannot be compared one-to-one against, for example, the transition from iOS 4 to iOS 5. "This is [RIM's] iOS; this is their Windows Phone," he says, referring to the "first stage" rollouts to which BBX should be compared.
Executive Director and Principal Analyst
NPD Connected Intelligence, The NPD Group
But if that's the truth, couldn't RIM have baked as much full functionality into its initial developers' preview as Apple did for the initial iPhone operating system? Every company may need to make up its own mind which cards it wants to show and which others it needs to hold close to the vest, Rubin responds, implying that Apple doesn't need to be setting the strategy template for RIM. Rubin was impressed by RIM's demonstration of the early capabilities of its Cascades graphics library -- its rich layout API for BBX developers. "It may be a bit difficult, since it's such a rich experience, to consider what that might look like on something like a BlackBerry Bold 9900 today, with a relatively small display. Certainly as a contrast, when Google showed off Ice Cream Sandwich on this new handset, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, they did not show what it was going to look like on tablets. But you can extrapolate how the user interface elements will scale up to that larger palette."
Really? I had a hard time imagining RIM's colored-bedsheet-waving messaging application on a three-inch screen. Ovum's Jan Dawson speaks to the problem of implying platform scalability to RIM's existing customer base: "BBX represents a platform transition, and as we've seen from other companies that have been through these difficult transitions -- Nokia being the current obvious example -- they can really take a toll on shipments and revenues while they work their way through. And as we've seen from other examples, including Palm, sometimes that transition is too little, too late, and the company never recovers.
"So there is an increased risk with BBX," Dawson continues, "that RIM fails to make this transition effectively, fails to gain developer traction, and ultimately fails to entice customers onto the new platform, resulting in a steeper decline than we've anticipated."
Issue #2: Will customers desire a BBX device?
"RIM is racing against the clock with consumers," says Levy, who now appears frequently nationwide on Canada's CTV News Channel. "Its current operating system is essentially D.O.A., because it has roots going back to the first BlackBerry, and hasn't been significantly updated since then, except for evolutionary changes along the way."
So why would RIM expect consumers to want a new BBX-based BlackBerry phone next year based on what they saw of BBX running on something other than a phone last week? Didn't RIM learn anything from Apple?
"I think 2011 is very different from 2007," Levy responds. "In 2007, there were no computer smartphones that were app-capable. So Apple had all the time in the world to methodically plan the assault on the next-generation smartphone market that it was creating. It didn't have competitors breathing down its neck. Whereas now, RIM does. The smartphone world has gone app crazy. The longer it takes for RIM to develop its competency, the further behind it will be lapped."
CTV News Channel
NPD Group's Rubin points out the straight-laced, button-down nature of BlackBerry's services and marketing, which has worked well for RIM in the past. "RIM is going to be at a crossroads," proclaims Rubin. "Historically, the company has relied on the strength and power of its network to be very conservative in terms of data and the needs of the handset. It has been vigilant against the trend of over-spec-ing, if you will, and taking pride in its philosophy of giving handsets the power that they need, but also holding back where appropriate to preserve longer battery life.
"But in this new world of an operating system that is capable of such rich visualizations... what good is having those capabilities without the powerful hardware to support it?" he continues. The BlackBerry BBX device of the future may look very different than a Bold 9900, he projects, with different screen size minimums as well as processor specifications. He adds that RIM could go on with the BB OS product line simultaneously for at least a few more years. "RIM has essentially drawn a line in the sand, saying there's a baseline that we need to run BBX on a handset."
The 2007 iPhone launch may be among the most perfect consumer device premieres in history. Apple achieved this partly by making sure a good number of iPhone services and apps worked, and not partway. Shouldn't RIM have demonstrated BBX working on something more resembling a BlackBerry phone than a PlayBook tablet?
"I do think that showing prototypes is important in illustrating progress," IDC's Hilwa responds. "However, there are also drawbacks in showing prototypes too early. What is important is getting the product equation right, and not rushing it to market. This has to be one important lesson learned from the PlayBook experience."
Carmi Levy disagrees. "I think there are some executives at RIM who will likely regret not having a working hardware prototype on hand at DevCon," he says. "Considering what RIM spends on R&D, which is far and away twice as much, if not more, compared to Apple, they could've gotten at least some working hardware ready for a limited scope demo, just to raise the excitement factor."
Issue #3: Will RIM be a player in 2013?
There's been a lot of piling on RIM these past weeks, and I've done my share of the piling. Assume for a moment that RIM does everything it needs to do. It creates at least one BlackBerry phone that changes the form factor just enough to be innovative, and that delivers BBX functionality in an attractive fashion, with back-end services with reliability comparable to the BlackBerry of 2008.
Is there any foreseeable scenario where BBX propels Research In Motion to a solid third place, at the very least, in mobile devices?
Program Director for Applications Development Software
"It will be challenging for RIM to hold on to third place in the handset market, at least domestically" concludes NPD's Ross Rubin -- who was impressed by the Cascades demo. "Microsoft is investing very heavily in Windows Phone 7. It is aggressively courting developers and, even though its share is much smaller than RIM's in the U.S., according to NPD's data, we are seeing signs that more consumers are interested in Windows Phone, and even some signs that new smartphone customers are purchasing Windows Phone. It's still quite early in Windows Phone's evolution, and ultimately third place is not where Microsoft wants to be, but it's got a bit of a head start on BBX at this point. And after Windows 8 ships, it'll have a similar user interface running on the PC and the handset, and a much stronger story to tell about the continuity of the experience across Windows and Windows Phone."
Ovum's Jan Dawson is keeping an eye out for Nokia's premiere of Windows Phone 7-based devices at the company's annual conference in London. There, we're likely to see what level of marketing muscle Nokia has assembled, and learn the details of important carrier relationships, at least for Europe if not elsewhere.
"So Windows Phone will be gaining momentum just as RIM and BBX go into a phase of great uncertainty," says Dawson. "If Windows Phone makes a success of it, and RIM stumbles, I could easily see Windows Phone and not BBX emerging as the third platform, which is exactly what [Nokia CEO] Stephen Elop hopes to achieve. But that's conditional on all the stars aligning in a particular way, which is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination."
Chief Analyst, Ovum
"It's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that RIM can occupy a strong #3 position in the market that it created," responds Carmi Levy, who has never subscribed to the notion that Apple created the smartphone market. "I think it is unrealistic to assume that RIM will ever dominate this market again, at least not as it exists in its current form. Four years ago, RIM clearly misread the threat that Apple's iPhone posed to its core technology, and then later the threat of Google's Android, clearly misread the transition to tablets and how common operating systems truly create brand equity among consumers as well as enterprise buyers. It clearly missed the transition to the app-based economy, and essentially clung to the technologies, processes, and best practices that got it to where it was in 2007, but that were no longer applicable or successful or relevant after that date.
"I think that RIM realizes now it's playing a very different game," he continues somberly, "realizes that it has to give up a lot of what it previously assumed was sacrosanct, and recognizes that the brand equity that made BlackBerry a competitive mobile device, a brand to aspire to, is probably gone for the foreseeable future. And they're not going to get it back, because even if they do recapture some of that earlier magic, it'll be in a market that's much more crowded than when RIM essentially dominated the landscape."