Thursday, January 31, 2013

Blackberry 10 - enough? (spoiler alert - no)

So our Canadian friends at the company formerly known as RIM have thrown their Hail Mary pass. They unveiled the Z10 touchscreen phone and the Q10 "classic Blackberry" phones (the Q10 has a keyboard with a smaller touchscreen above it). Both phones are based on the new Blackberry 10 OS, which is based on the QNX operating system. There's developer tools in place to allow a lot of Android apps to run in the new OS. The horrible Blackberry Enterprise Server has been replaced by the identically acronym-ed but entirely rebuilt Blackberry Enterprise Service - offering management features for a company's Android and iOS phones as well.

I haven't had hands-on with one of the new devices, and probably won't anytime soon. Showing a lesson not learned, they aren't shipping for at least a month (the software is available now but none of the phones are ready yet). But I have read the reviews from people who were Friends of Waterloo, and the analysis is generally rather positive. In particular, the new Blackberries have a genuinely innovative new feature - the existence of separate operating partitions for work and for personal use. In the modern era of people using one phone for work and home, and BYOD policies, the ability to control a user's business messaging and information is crucial, but at the same time these phones are what people use to live their lives. They take pictures at their kid's soccer games. They have text messages from their spouses. They play Angry Birds. In the classic MDM model, you use an ActiveSync connection (or the old BES) to access and if needed remotely wipe a user's phone in the case of loss or termination. But in that model, you also delete their personal life.

Split personalities on the same phone go a long way towards resolving that. It's an innovative feature, and one I hope that Google, Apple, and Microsoft "me too" into future releases of their operating systems. On the other hand, all three of those tie into either ActiveSync or an alternative personal-based management model (Google Account, iCloud, Windows Live) Blackberry calls this new separation system Blackberry Balance.

There's also a nice feature in the camera app that captures several seconds of still photo and lets you pick the moment you want as the actual photo. The keyboard has predictive input that learns your patterns, and they've added rudimentary Siri Junior-type dictation. The familiar Blackberry unified inbox is still there, dubbed "BlackBerry Hub" and given pretty icons to indicate the message type and source.

The phones them selves are typical Blackberry - solid-looking hardware with a snap-off back and replaceable battery (which, based on the early tests, you may need to do a lot - it has the short battery life of a 1.0 product). They will be supporting LTE (both GSM and CDMA variations), dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and also NFC. All the basics. They have a nice Retina-class display, slightly larger than iPhone but at 1280x768 resolution for a 356 PPI density. It's not quite a 16:9 aspect ratio but HD content should look good on these. it comes with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, with support for a microSD card if desired.

Surprisingly, there's no dedicated ringer off switch (a possible inconvenience for many). Battery life in early testing, as I mentioned above, seems on the poor side, though hopefully software improvements will help that by the time they ship.

"So it sounds great, Josh! What do you think will happen? Is Blackberry back in the saddle again?"

Well, let me answer that simply. No.

"What? But what about all the people out there still using Blackberries? Won't they upgrade?"

Some of them will, of course. But here's the thing. RIM had their heyday before the smartphone became the force it is today. They were ahead for many years, but the market has passed them by. RIM sold 6.9 million smartphones in the past quarter (September through November). Apple sold 47.8 million iPhones in the roughly comparable quarter (October through December, but one fewer week than the previous year's results). Samsung (the leading Android vendor) doesn't give exact shipping figures, but it's safe to say they turned comparable shipment numbers across their whole range of phones (they make 153 phones just in the US, running Android or Windows Phone). Counting the shipments of other vendors, that's leaving Blackberry with 5% or less of the marketplace.

5% of the market doesn't get you far. Now remember that Blackberry isn't burning their ships - they are still selling lower-cost "classic" Blackberry devices in most markets. So maybe 3% of sales wind up being Blackberry 10 devices at best. At 3%, you aren't going to get developer buy-in. Blackberry users don't buy apps. The companies that used to manage BES servers have dropped them in favor of ActiveSync - I know every single client of mine that formerly used BES is out of that game now. Their users dropped the Blackberries and went to Android phones and iPhones. My city dumped their BES last year - now a few have iPhones and most have Galaxy II or Galaxy III phones. Times have changed.

So basically, at the end of 2011 I predicted that RIM wouldn't finish 2012 as an independent company. I was wrong. But that was because of two things - one, they had enough cash to stay independent, and two, nobody wanted them. I think 2013 will be their end as an independent company, and by fall BB10 will have failed as a product. Not because it's bad, but because it's too late. Microsoft can barely get traction in the mobile market. Blackberry (as RIM has now re-dubbed themselves) will suffer a worse fate without all the cash Microsoft has stockpiled.

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