How RIM could learn from Ubuntu, and why it needs to before it’s too late

you can learnToday Ubuntu announced Ubuntu for Android, an app that will sync all your Android apps into a Linux-based interface. The new app is the latest step in the platform’s expanding mobile agenda, part of Ubuntu’s multi-screen agenda. “This isn’t the ‘Ubuntu Phone,” as Canonical’s Mark Shuttlesworth puts it. “The phone experience here is pure Android. This announcement is playing to a different story, which is the convergence of multiple different form factors into one most-personal device.”

Ubuntu is not in RIM’s league, yet it has legions of diehard loyalists and hasn’t pigeon-holed itself into working exclusively with small names. It also has a new product to show off at Mobile World Congress next week. It’s a calculated and noticed effort to make an impact on this community and grow its brand into incredibly profitable waters.

BlackBerry maker RIM will also (obviously) be at MWC. But instead of showing off a new phone or announce new, groundbreaking applications, RIM will be promoting… new software. What’s wrong with this picture? How is a legacy mobile name announcing nothing more than an overdue OS upgrade while an open-source, no history-in-handsets brand grabs headlines for its innovative use of Android?

Seeing Android for what it’s worth

As was highlighted in a RIM vs. Robert Scoble series of blog posts recently, RIM has no intentions on adopting Android in any way, shape, or form. “There’s no money, Robert, in being just another undifferentiated Android handset,” VP of Developer Relations for BlackBerry Alec Saunders said at one point.

RIM has just a percentage of the developer support that its competitors do. If you think of the major apps released in the last year, you’ll realize that most of them did not support BlackBerry at launch and that many of them still don’t have a compatible app ready. While developer interest isn’t everything and the tide can turn fairly quickly, it’s been turning against RIM for awhile now – even as that support has becoming increasingly important.

RIM notoriously fought off any integration with Android. Only shortly before the PlayBook launch did the company announce the tablet would support Android apps (via a tool developers could use to make their apps compatible with the Playbook’s QNX-based operating system, BlackBerry 10). But the bigger problem is the time and money spent  investing in the BlackBerry OS, which is fair but also a little pathetic: there are been hurdles upon hurdles in RIM’s transition to BlackBerry 10, and phones are but a distant dream (likely slated for late 2012). It’s clinging to former glory while also trying to play catch-up with more consumer-friendly (not just enterprise-bound, which it’s losing its hold over) products. And it’s just too late to the game. Who wants to develop for something that has seen far better days and is struggling just to get an actual BB10 handset on shelves?

And that’s the edge that Android has. It’s a big, robust developer-heavy environment and one that isn’t bogged down waiting on something that is still months, if not years from release. If anything, one of Android’s biggest problems is that it’s evolving too quickly, leaving users behind in the dust of outdated operating systems.

It’s part of the reason why Ubuntu attached itself to the platform. Android is a launch pad, and in some respects, RIM sort of needs to think of itself as starting over.

Thinking outside the box (er, phone)

RIM is very clearly trying to infuse the tablet with some enterprise-friendly aspects. The all-too-familiar promo for the device was “amateur hour is over” (which is somewhat laughable now). BlackBerries have long been the phone of the corporate world, and it was time to expand.

Unfortunately, it did this in the most predictable way possible. Instead of offering a truly synced experience, it deviated and introduced the QNX-based Playbook, something entirely different than its phones were using (and again, we’ve yet to see a BlackBerry 10 phone). It’s just more independent devices that don’t communicate well enough.

It almost seems like just poor planning when you look at the company’s quick history. The Playbook’s launch was a mess, and BlackBerry 10 is rife with its own stalled development. RIM wanted to be part of the evolution of mobile and instead of doing something different than what had quickly become its traditionally antiquated approach, it just plod along. It tried to make different, innovative products without the software to back it up – or the option of working with a company that might be further along.

But Ubuntu is using its collaboration with Android to introduce new and creative options for users, and it is doing it better than RIM’s fledgling attempts. Ubuntu for Android means that if you have a laptop and an Android phone, you can completely and seamlessly sync them for a unified screen experience. This translates to data consolidation. It also connects to the new Ubuntu TV media platform.

Ubuntu’s using its strengths and porting them to Android devices while adding in new conveniences. It’s smart and it’s calculated. Now, will Ubuntu overreach with its stand-alone operating system and will it survive? That’s incredibly difficult to say, but for the time being, it’s making all the right moves. The lesson: stop over-hyping and under-performing, and don’t knock partnerships or creative uses of another mobile platform — they might be your saving grace. 

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