Research in Motion (RIM), maker of BlackBerry smartphones, this week unveiled, at least in early beta, its long anticipated and repeatedly delayed BlackBerry 10 operating system.
The Canadian company hopes the redesigned OS will help arrest the decline in BlackBerry’s popularity among consumers, especially in developed markets where Apple’s iPhone and devices running Google’s Android have captured significant market share. But with no official launch date and the product itself looking underwhelming it’s worth asking if BlackBerry 10 is a case of too little, too late.
RIM CEO Thorsten Heins, who took the helm in January, announced the OS plans at the BlackBerry World event in Orlando, Florida.
Heins displayed a prototype touch-screen device running BlackBerry 10, leading some to suggest that BlackBerry was set to do away with physical keyboards — a suggestion the company vehemently denied shortly after the presentation.
But even if BlackBerry was to get its approach to touch interfaces in line with Android and Apple’s iOS, it would have to offer something unique otherwise it’s simply playing catch-up in a game where the goal posts are constantly shifting.
While RIM continues to delay the release of BlackBerry 10, new Android devices continue to grab market share from the low end all the way to the very high end of the market. The longer the company delays its new OS, the more BlackBerry loyalists it will lose and the more difficult it will be to win back the defectors.
Another obstacle for BlackBerry is that the platform has long been plagued by a relative dearth of applications. Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS ecosystems — the very same ecosystems that pose the biggest threat to BlackBerry’s high-end devices — dominate the apps game. This is shaping consumers buying decisions.
BlackBerry’s tablet, the PlayBook, has already been shown running Android apps and allowing BlackBerry 10 devices to do so could make up for some of the shortfall on the apps front. But it’s by no means a panacea, particularly as RIM would surely prefer developers to be making proprietary apps for its own devices.
Although its entry-level devices continue to sell in droves in developing markets, the company has not succeeded as much in winning over the top end of the consumer market, relying instead on its large corporate base to push its top-shelf devices to executives.
But even this strategy has limited longevity. Increasingly, companies are allowing staff to use the devices of their own choosing, meaning more iPhones and Android phones in big companies. And executives, used to the iPad, are warming to the idea of switching to the iPhone.
BlackBerry does continue to offer a compelling proposition for those on a limited budget looking for push e-mail and Internet browsing capabilities for a fixed monthly fee, but for those with a little more disposable income the choice is increasingly for alternative platforms.
BIS, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), and RIM’s much-lauded security are the brand’s strongest differentiating features — and the ones that drove its enormous initial growth. But BBM is being overshadowed by cross-platform instant-messaging services like WhatsApp. And companies are increasingly having to support Android and iOS devices as more employees demand to use them with company systems, so RIM needs to pull a rabbit from the hat, and fast.
RIM’s shares have lost a little shy of three-quarters of their value in the last year — a figure that makes it all the more difficult for the company to downplay its decline by pointing to markets such as India and Indonesia where it’s still seeing growth.
Even with ongoing growth in developing markets, what happens as these markets mature? Developing markets take their aspirational cues from established ones – if the US falls out of love with BlackBerry completely, how long before the rest of the world does, too?
That’s not to say BlackBerry can be written off just yet. Companies like Apple have come from further behind and turned things around. What’s worryingly lacking in BlackBerry’s outbound communication is a sense of urgency.