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.
Given 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.
Aware 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.
What 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.