Source: Flickr user Honou
With last week’s acquisition of Swedish design company The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), Research In Motion made clear that it’s serious about righting its teetering ship. TAT, after all, created the UI behind the Motorola G1, the world’s first Android handset, and phones from Samsung, Sony Ericsson and others. The deal should provide some polish for BlackBerry OS, but it also could improve the handset manufacturer’s QNX platform, which will eventually replace RIM’s aging flagship platform across its device lineup.
But changing platforms is a huge undertaking, and it’s one that will be costly. Jeffries & Co. analyst Peter Misek said last week that RIM may be building nothing but QNX gadgets within a year. Which means the company must entice developers to continue to build for BlackBerry, even as it encourages them to create apps for the new OS. And as Canaccord Genuity’s T. Michael Walkley wrote last week, a winnowing portfolio of new BlackBerry OS devices could be damaging amid increasing competition — offerings like the Samsung and HTC Android phones, as well as Verizon’s likely launch of the iPhone.
Before you BlackBerry lovers rush to defend the long-established OS, let me say this: Nobody does mobile email as well as RIM, and BlackBerry handles multitasking admirably and generally excels when it comes to on-the-go productivity. But end users — who increasingly get to choose which devices they carry to work — want a compelling smartphone experience, and as my colleague Ryan Kim noted last week, even the new BlackBerry 6.0 seems a generation (or more) behind fresher platforms like iOS and Android, which offer a better browsing experience and far superior multimedia support. All this helps explain why BlackBerry’s U.S. market share has slipped 3.5 percent over the last three months, according to data released by comScore on Friday. Meanwhile, Google (up 6.5 percent) and Apple (up .8 percent) built on their momentum. Apple also recently surpassed RIM in worldwide market share, according to Strategy Analytics.
Nonetheless, there is tremendous opportunity for any manufacturer who can combine user-friendly features with an enterprise-minded OS. In his note last week, Misek cited QNX’s “great” browser, superior security and low power consumption. Just as importantly, QNX — which very few people have actually laid their hands on — appears to deliver the same kind of compelling user experience that have fueled the success of iPhone and Android. And we can’t forget tablets, which may have a bright future in the enterprise. Apple has had mixed results in the corporate world, but the PlayBook — which runs QNX and which could be a cheaper alternative — might be a hit among business types. Nobody is as well positioned to take advantage of the enterprise space as RIM, given its reputation for rock-solid business apps and its massive mindshare among IT departments who still have some influence over which devices staffers carry.
So how can RIM move from its stale BlackBerry OS to QNX with minimal damage? Here are a few key ways:
- Make developing for both platforms as painless — and as lucrative — as possible. Make QNX software developer kits (SDKs) available well in advance of product launches (the SDK for the PlayBook was released several weeks ago), and fully support BlackBerry OS for as long as necessary.
- Leverage carrier relationships. RIM has always done a good job of partnering with operators to market its products; that will be even more important in the coming months if (as Walkley expects) fewer new BlackBerry handsets come to market in advance of QNX smartphones.
- Build a bigger and better app store. BlackBerry App World currently boasts about 15,000 titles — a respectable number, to be sure, but a tiny sliver of what’s available from Apple or Google. So RIM must continue to bulk up its distribution system for BlackBerry apps, and it must support QNX and the PlayBook with as many titles as it can. Because even if RIM can produce top-notch QNX devices, they’ll flop if they don’t have enough apps to make them useful.