It seems that hardly a day goes by now when I don’t stumble across an article predicting the decline or even the death of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, which revolutionized the handset with an array of unmatched messaging capabilities (push email, BlackBerry Messenger) in the early 2000s.
While it is certainly true that company faces stiff competition from the likes of Apple and Google these days, RIM and its BlackBerry platform are still very much alive, contrary to what the self-anointed tech punditocracy would seemingly have us all believe. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard RIM described as a sinking ship doomed to oblivion (or some similar metaphor).
The pundits who have written RIM off all seem to have a double standard. They are easily impressed by anything Apple or Google do, but completely unimpressed by anything that RIM does. They say BlackBerry is dead, or on the verge of being dead, even though RIM still has a healthy share of the smartphone market.
Their criticism might have a shred of credibility if RIM was idling, not bothering to develop any new products or improve the quality of its services. But that is just what the company is doing. RIM knows it has to compete, and compete aggressively, if it wants to survive. It has to innovate more quickly than it has in the past. But it also needs to do a better job of polishing new devices before putting them into the hands of reviewers and marketing them to loyal customers.
It’s a tough balancing act. But RIM seems to be embracing the challenge, seeking to reinvent itself without compromising its traditional strengths.
It just isn’t getting much recognition for its efforts. Take this dismissive paragraph from Boy Genius Report’s Jonathan Geller:
The real problem with RIM is that it hasn’t innovated for years. In that time, RIM’s entire product portfolio has been arguably lackluster, reduced to meaningless hardware upgrades and meaningless software upgrades. The company has tried to right its path by transitioning to QNX, an OS it purchased that will not only run the company’s tablets but smartphones as well in the next year to two. And the PlayBook by itself isn’t a bad product — but compared to the iPad, it’s a non-starter.
I’m not sure if Jonathan has bothered to try out the PlayBook, but I’ve got one, and I would describe it as a well-designed, 5.1 by 7.6 inch tablet with a lot of promise. Despite a slew of unenthusiastic reviews, the PlayBook has been selling reasonably well, in part because it has unique capabilities that the iPad does not.
For instance, it has a Flash-ready browser capable of rendering websites like a desktop or laptop. It has an HDMI port, which means it can be effortlessly connected to a modern flat panel television, no adapter required. And it ships with several thoughtfully designed native apps, including an Adobe PDF reader and a word processor that can accurately display most documents.
I can attest that the PlayBook is a joy to use. And because it is smaller than the iPad, it is much lighter and more portable.
Since launch day, RIM has pushed out several updates to the BlackBerry Tablet OS, correcting bugs and introducing new features. Several updates have arrived this month, including one a few weeks ago which consists of a number of significant improvements.
But there is more to come. RIM has confirmed that several extremely exciting updates are in store for the PlayBook, which will correct almost all of the flaws identified by reviewers. These include:
- Native email, calendar, and tasks. Presently, the PlayBook has no standalone personal information manager apps, though it can display messages, events, and to-do items from a BlackBerry smartphone via BlackBerry Bridge. But native apps are on the way for those who need them.
- Support for Android and traditional BlackBerry apps. Presently, there isn’t a huge selection of apps available for the PlayBook, because the operating system that runs the tablet is so new. That will change when RIM ships a compatibility update allowing the PlayBook to run Android and traditional Java-based BlackBerry apps.
- 4G radio. Presently, the PlayBook is Wi-Fi and Bluetooth only; there’s no built-in radio that can connect to a cellular network. Many PlayBook owners don’t mind this, since they can pair their PlayBook with their BlackBerry smartphone or standalone mobile hotspot to get connectivity. However, RIM is planning to launch a version of the PlayBook with a radio built in to cater to customers who want connectivity everywhere that cell signals reach without needing a second device.
Jonathan also had unkind, dismissive words for RIM’s efforts to improve the software that runs its BlackBerry smartphones.
RIM’s BlackBerry OS 7 (also known as BlackBerry OS 6.1, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry 6, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry OS 5, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry 4.7, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry 4.5, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry 4.3, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry 4.2, also known as the same OS as BlackBerry 4.0…) isn’t an overhaul, but just another stop-gap solution until QNX.
This derogatory characterization makes no sense.
How are the incremental updates that RIM has made to BlackBerry OS any different than the incremental updates that Apple has made to iOS, or the incremental updates Google has made to Android?
BlackBerry 7 may not be radically different than its immediate predecessor, OS 6, but it is radically different than OS 4, which came out years ago, when the much-touted iOS didn’t even have copy and paste functionality.
I can’t imagine that anyone asked to try out a handset running OS 4 and then a handset running OS 7 in a store would say the phones have the “same OS”. By Geller’s logic, Windows 7 is the “same OS” as Windows 2000.
OS 7 actually promises to be much snappier and more powerful than its immediate predecessor because it will run on much better hardware. Consider the specifications for RIM’s forthcoming BlackBerry Bold Touch, which marries the outstanding qualities of RIM’s most successful phone to a fast processor and a high resolution touchscreen, and will likely be sold by all three of the major carriers.
RIM is also said to be developing a refreshed version of the Torch, its first slider, which debuted on AT&T last August, though that has not been officially announced.
The team at RIM undoubtedly knows that they need to bring the Bold Touch, Torch 2, and other revamped phones to market soon to keep loyal users happy, and give users of other platforms reason to consider getting a BlackBerry. Google’s partners are constantly coming out with new Android phones, and the fifth iPhone is due out in a few months, as Apple confirmed the first week of June.
Whether the Bold Touch and Torch 2 sell well remains to be seen. There’s a good chance that the Bold Touch (which we know for sure is on the way) will be a hit, though. It could especially appeal to folks who like having a physical keyboard for fast typing, but want the benefits of having a touchscreen, too.
What I find ironic about the negative coverage of RIM by tech blogs is that it very much resembles the behavior of rating and click obsessed traditional media outlets, who love to pick winners and losers. Blogs like TechCrunch and BGR do their readers a disservice by emulating the behavior of tabloids and cable news networks. How about less favoritism and more grounded analysis for a change?