BlackBerry maker and one-time king of the corporate realm, RIM, is planning on setting free as many as 2,000 prototype phones running its new OS, BlackBerry 10, according to Bloomberg. The phones containing the as yet unreleased software will be given to select developers attending the BlackBerry 10 Jam (clever) conference in Orlando this May. Announced last week, BlackBerry 10 Jam is intended to “give developers insight on building applications in anticipation of the launch of the new BlackBerry 10 OS later this year,” but we don’t imagine anyone was expecting to actually get their hands on a workable device.
The move signals a 180 degree pivot for the company, which has historically made apps and third party development subordinate to its once-lauded baked-in functionality, such as a robust email client and security features — a decision that has cost the company dearly as consumers continue to make clear how important a vibrant app ecosystem is to them.
But the decision to go after the consumer segment and court developers may be too little too late: As IT policies are rewritten around the country to include iOS and Android, RIM may find itself in the position that Apple did a few years ago, facing hesitant IT administrators unfamiliar with the new system. For Apple, un-ignorable popularity precipitated the policy change.
And the consumerization of technology, in which more and more businesses, from small offices to large corporations, allow employees to have a say in the tech they use at work, has taken a tremendous toll on RIM’s bottom-line. By slowly ceding the consumer market to Apple and Android, in favor of lucrative government and corporate contracts, the innovation that made RIM a wild success — and essentially took smartphones mainstream — seems to have vanished. Companies have begun to adapt to previously prohibited technology as studies have made clear that employees work more often and efficiently on smartphones and laptops that they themselves choose.
Looking to the future
RIM is hopeful about BlackBerry 10, which is based on QNX, the software that powers the capable but poorly executed BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. “It’s a huge step forward on our path to eventually launching BB10,” Alec Saunders, RIM’s VP of developer relations, told Bloomberg. “It’s tangible evidence of the company making progress to finally shipping a device.”
We reported on that progress in February, when screenshots from the upcoming OS surfaced, featuring WP7-like tiles, and a distinctly Android-inspired home screen.
But the build that developers receive in May won’t be anything like what consumers should expect from a final release, warns Saunders — these prototypes will more closely resemble the PlayBook OS and will be strictly for building apps. “The experience on this device from a consumer’s perspective is not in any way indicative of what the final experience on BlackBerry 10 will be like,” he said. “We are holding that back to create the interest around that at launch time.”
Competing in a new world
RIM will have a hard sell with third party developers. According to a recent report by IDC, developer interest in BlackBerry declined from 20.7 percent in Q4 2011 to 15.5 percent in Q1 2012 — compare that to the 88 percent developer interest in iOS and a 79 percent interest in Android development.
And the barrier of entry for BlackBerry is also dauntingly high: Apple already has a stable of more than 500,000 apps available through its App Store. And Google Play, Android’s recently renamed marketplace, contains nearly 400,000. By comparison, the PlayBook has about 10,000 downloadable apps for that device, which RIM expects to be able to fully port to future BlackBerry 10 devices. Although BlackBerry adoption remains fairly robust in developing nations, the North American market is what RIM counts on for the majority of its revenue, and recent news that the iPhone outsold BlackBerry in Canada for the first time is an ominous sign.
Under new leadership, RIM has been urgently courting consumers. It’s ill-advised “Bold-Team” cartoon characters and “New 2012 Challenge Council Project,” which aims to “shut down BlackBerry trash talk once and for all,” may not prove successful in rebranding the Canadian company, when what consumers are really looking for is innovation, as opposed to hackneyed marketing. It seems a strange twist indeed that the company once on top of the corporate world be reduced to wooing the average smartphone user to again gain traction with businesses, but in technology, the motto truly is “evolve or die.” BlackBerry 10 is due sometime late in 2012, but we can’t wait to see what RIM shows us in May — we always like a good Cinderella story.
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