[Op-Ed] Can Blackberry 10 change the fate of RIM?

RIM (Research in Motion) the company that makes the Blackberry line of products, is truly a giant who has fallen from grace.  The Canadian based company has faced a much changed smartphone landscape from a decade ago when Blackberry was king of the hill.  There was a time when the term “smartphone” was synonymous with a Blackberry.  You could hardly walk down the street or breeze into a business meeting without seeing someone on their Blackberry.  Now, Apple and Samsung are the giants of the smartphone industry and RIM is almost an afterthought in a field they used to dominate.  As of the 1st quarter 2012, RIM trailed Apple, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and LG in terms of market share by manufacturer.  Read that again…RIM is behind even LG!  How did such a drastic turn of events come about?  Many things can be said…complacency, reliance on the government/business model to support their sales revenue, poorer quality products, failed attempts at innovation (*cough-BB Storm-cough*), and even a shift in the paradigm of the smartphone market itself.  Companies like Apple made it “cool” to own a smartphone, as long that smartphone was their product.  Thus, the rise of the “prosumer” market segment was born, and the beginning of the decline of RIM.  Other companies playing catch-up for so long not only caught up, but surpassed what RIM was doing.
This has resulted in a dramatic financial impact to the company – RIM posted a $235 million 2nd quarter 2012 loss, or about 45 cents a share.  If you exclude restructuring costs its actually only (only?) $142 million, representing about 27 cents a share…which was actually above what analysts had been predicting (about a 46 cents a share loss) *source: CNET.com.  Could the owners of a business really call this a victory?  Especially when the CEO also expects these losses to continue through the 3rd quarter as well.

But earlier this week, RIM hosted an event for media outlets and developers alike to debut what they hope will be the product that pushes them back up to at or near the top of the smartphone heap – the Blackberry 10 OS.  A while ago, Blackberry acquired QNX Software Systems in order to help them further develop their GUI operating system, primarily for their tablet OS but with an end goal of having it on all their mobile devices.  This has culminated in the BB10 platform for their smartphones.  While only the BB Dev Alpha B hardware device was shown during the event, the rumor is there are plans to also have it running on a traditional Blackberry style device with a full QWERTY keyboard as well.  The mock ups pictured below could well be the devices that RIM are betting the farm on.

(photo renders courtesy of Crackberry.com)

Its going to be tough for buyers to get their hands on them though, since RIM also announced at the event that no BB 10 phones will be unveiled in 2012.  Perhaps they didn’t want to compete with other smartphones scheduled for a holiday launch or perhaps the BB10 product just isn’t ready for prime time yet, but either way, folks who are eager to see what RIM has cooked up will have to wait a little while longer for it.  What was shown was an end user experience that still caters largely to those in a corporate environment, but fleshes out the personal side of the product as well.  Some of the features that long time Blackberry users enjoy have made their way here (BB pin messaging, an integrated inbox for all messages, now including social media) as well as some new goodies that RIM is hoping will wow users looking for something other than an iOS or Android experience.  BB10 has some Windows 8 feel as well, but the overall experience is something truly unique.  Features like the appropriately titled “Peak” (the ability to access new incoming messages with a two stage swipe gesture) and the Blackberry Hub (the central location to access some or all of your incoming messages) are features that will no doubt draw some folks, likely former Blackberry users, in for a closer look.  Even the ability to have “work” and “home” sides of the device, governed by separate IT policies, will no doubt be a huge draw for some segments of the established IT workforce.  Will it be enough to bring back the thousands and thousands of defectors who left for iPhones or Galaxy S2s?  That remains to be seen…and is even harder to predict when the actual finished product (both in terms of software and hardware) are months away from being shown off again.

Even so, its not all doom and gloom just yet for RIM.  The company did add 2 million subscribers in the second quarter, mostly in emerging markets however, which results in lower profit margins on their lower cost products.  The company reportedly shipped a little more than 7 million phones which isn’t a terrible number.  More bad news regarding their tablet segment though, which shipped a paltry 130,000 Playbook devices during the same time period.  So there is certainly room for growth here, if BB10 can morph into the finished version of itself sooner rather than later.  How much growth?  From where I’m sitting, and as a former Blackberry user myself, it seems a lot like too little-too late.


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