For the company formerly known as Research In Motion, the BlackBerry 10 launch this week is the first step of an ambitious comeback plan.
But, the groundwork for this plan was laid long before Wednesday's event and even before Thorsten Heins took over as CEO. As Heins explained in his keynote, BlackBerry, as RIM is now known, was faced with a very serious decision two years ago: adopt someone else's software platform or redesign the BlackBerry OS and go it alone.
If BlackBerry had taken Nokia's route and dropped its OS in favor of a third-party platform, the company would have been forced to either hitch its wagon to Windows, which, arguably, is in a worse position than BlackBerry, or risk becoming lost in a sea of Android partners and overshadowed by Samsung and Motorola.
It's hard to second-guess BlackBerry's decision, even at this stage of BlackBerry 10's early existence. A departure from its proprietary software, as well as its all-important BlackBerry Enterprise Server, would have signaled total defeat for the company. BlackBerry 10 has received generally positive feedback, so at the very least BlackBerry will be making a spirited comeback attempt. Here's what the company got right with its new platform and BB10 devices, as well as a few things it didn't.
1. Embracing Application Developers
Arguably the biggest issue for BlackBerry in recent years was the lack of mobile applications for its devices. Developers were flocking to iOS and Android, and interest in the BlackBerry platform seemed low. The most glaring example of this discrepancy was perhaps the launch of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in 2011; there was a lack of native apps designed for the PlayBook OS, which has now been merged with the smartphone OS in BlackBerry 10, and even though BlackBerry later added support for Android apps for the tablet, the BlackBerry App World store was criticized as messy and difficult to navigate. And even with many Android apps, the PlayBook was still missing a lot of top-tier applications, especially in the productivity and business departments.
Fast forward to 2013, and it's a different story; BlackBerry 10 has more than 70,000 apps at launch, which the company said is more than any other first-generation mobile OS release. During Wednesday's launch event, BlackBerry executives spent quite a bit of time talking about the company's effort to court developers for BB10 and provide them with the tools, support and financial incentives to create apps for the platform, including "Port-a-Thon" contests for Android developers to bring their content over to BB10.
The effort appears to have paid off; among the 70,000 apps are chart-toppers like Skype, Amazon Kindle, Facebook, Twitter and popular games like Angry Birds. Yes, BB10 users will have to wait for some big names like Instagram. And yes, many of those launch naps are still Android apps at their core. But, a big question for BlackBerry going into 2013 has been answered: If the company can continue to entice developers and at minimum generate solid Android ports for its more secure and stable OS, then BlackBerry will have turned a minus into a plus.
NEXT: BlackBerry Balance, BlackBerry World, And Keyboards2. More Enterprise Excellence
The good news: With BB10, BlackBerry showed it's still strong at delivering the kind of enterprise functionality that made its smartphones so popular with business users. The even better news: The company has upped its enterprise game with some new features that will make BB10 even harder to match in the corporate world. The previously-released BlackBerry 10 Enterprise Service is a key addition, allowing IT administrators to manage both BlackBerrys and iOS and Android devices. But there's more, like BlackBerry Balance, which allows users to create a personal profile and a work profile and seamlessly move between the two; BlackBerry Flow, for multitasking and moving from app to app; and BlackBerry Safeguard, for encrypting data and locking lost devices.
The key issue for BlackBerry will be if users and not IT departments or CIOs are impressed enough with the enterprise features to buy BB10 devices. With the advent of BYOD, the purchasing of mobile devices has been moved from the corporation to the consumer.
3. Improving Consumer Features
A big complaint about previous pre-BB10 BlackBerrys was the lack of consumer-minded features and services. Case in point: the BlackBerry App World was largely seen as inferior to other app or content stores like Apple's iTunes, Google Play and Microsoft's Windows Phone Store. But, BlackBerry revamped the entire store for BB10, which is now called BlackBerry World. In addition to an easier-to-use app and content store, BlackBerry also brought out the big guns for BB10 with virtually every major movie studio and music label supporting the platform with music, TV and movies for purchase or rental at prices similar to other content stores.
Along with BlackBerry World, the new OS also offers some alluring features for personal use, such as TimeShift for picture taking. The new feature actually takes multiple pictures of a subject before and after a user presses the shutter; once the picture is snapped, users can then scroll through the before and after images to fine-tune the image, eliminating any poorly timed, blinks.
4. Keeping The Keyboard
When Heins introduced the BlackBerry Q10, a new BB10-based device with a physical keyboard, many attendees at the launch event showered the CEO with applause. Despite the rise of the touchscreen smartphone over the last five years, many loyal BlackBerry users still prefer a physical QWERTY keypad on their phone. And the Q10 looks to satisfy many of those longtime BlackBerry customers. The phone comes with the same kind of physical keyboard as in previous devices, but the touchscreen display is now a bit larger at 3.2 inches. Given that touchscreen phones are much more popular these days, BlackBerry will probably spend more time and energy promoting the keyboard-less BlackBerry Z10. But, the company did right by its base with the Q10 and put to rest any fears that BlackBerry was leaving QWERTY behind.
NEXT: BlackBerry 10's Poor Timing And MoreIt wasn't all positives for BlackBerry this week. There were a few misses from the BB10 launch this week that could hamper its comeback plan.
1. Terrible Timing
Despite a lot of new and improved features, BlackBerry's new OS is still late to the party. BB10 was delayed from 2012 to this year, which saddled BlackBerry with even more subscriber losses and caused the company to miss the big holiday shopping season. What's more, BB10 could have had a greater impact for BlackBerry a year or two ago when its financial losses and customers defections weren't quite as steep. Bottom line: BB10 solves a lot of issues for BlackBerry that should have been addressed sooner.
2. Awful Availability
If there was one common complaint from BB10's launch this week, it was the wacky release schedule for BB10 devices. The BlackBerry Z10 launches first in the U.K. of all places this Thursday, while customers in BlackBerry's native land of Canada have to wait until Feb. 5th. And if you think that's bad, the U.S. won't see the Z10 officially until March -- after the United Arab Emirates, by the way -- and even then it will launch for "most carriers" rather than all of them. Meanwhile, the Q10 won't arrive until April, so classic BlackBerry fans will have to hold out even longer. BlackBerry will have to try to sustain the excitement for BB10 several more weeks if it wants to successfully cash in on the buzz, which is hardly an easy task.
3. Spec Shortcomings
The BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 earned a lot of positive accolades, but there are a few curious shortcomings for the new smartphones. For one, the two phones feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon dual-core 1.5 GHz processor, which is a fine system-on-a-chip (SoC) and is used by other popular smartphones today like Samsung's Galaxy S III. The problem is, new smartphones are already moving up the performance ladder to quad-core chips, like the forthcoming Galaxy S4 that's rumored to have a new quad-core SoC, so a dual-core chip isn't exactly cutting edge. Furthermore, the Z10 is only launching with one version -- a 16 GB model -- with a microSD slot for expandable storage. But, the BB10 device only supports an additional 32 GB of storage, which still falls below the 64 GB available in competing smartphones like the iPhone 5. While the technical specs for the Z10 and Q10 are solid, BlackBerry could have made them spectacular.
After Wednesday's launch, it's clear that Heins and the rest of the company have taken the criticism and complaints of the last few years to heart and made some major changes to make BlackBerry competitive again. Critics will no longer be able to say the company sat idle while the market changed around it. The big question going forward will be, in a mobile computing market where users are now calling the shots, can BlackBerry appeal to consumers along with IT departments? Time will tell.
PUBLISHED JAN. 31, 2013