The bad news keeps on piling up for Research in Motion, the firm behind the once iconic BlackBerry smartphone line. Its worldwide market share is dropping (down to 11.7% at the latest count) and the combination of the iPhone 4S launch and long worldwide disruptions to its BlackBerry Messenger service has dealt another blow to the company. It’s now felt that many of its core users in the business market are switching to competing platforms, most notably Android and iPhone.
These setbacks have come in the wake of a continuing effort by the Canadian telecommunications firm to bring BlackBerry to the massive youth market. Its success in this strategy has been moderate at best. While their cheap QWERTY handsets were used widely in the English summer riots (leading commentators to brand the BlackBerry ‘The Riot Phone’), in most cases the company has failed to enthuse the market in a significant way. A good example is the first BlackBerry-powered tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook.
The slate, powered by a new QNX-based operating system, is an interesting case. The new OS was well received by critics, who called it novel, efficient and enjoyable. The PlayBook’s hardware was also of reasonable quality; not quite as beautiful as Apple’s iPad, but at least comparable to similar Android tablets. The price was also similar, with the 32 GB version of the slate available at the iPad-level price of Ł400.
Yet the PlayBook’s sales reached a mere 700,000 units in six months; in contrast Apple sold 30 million iPads in eighteen. The tablet’s biggest flaw was its barren app store marketplace, which was a tiny fraction of the size of the Apple or Android markets. RIM did little to help matters by focusing on apps which would appeal to casual users (like games) and even restricted their flagship BlackBerry Messenger application to PlayBook owners who also had a BlackBerry phone. They also made the development process overly difficult compared to other platforms, further discouraging developers to take part.
If RIM wishes to succeed with the BlackBerry platform, it needs to take a step back and re-focus its efforts. Its strongest market is the business user, and the company needs to get back to its position in 2007, before the iPhone exploded onto the scene. Crackberry phones at the time were status symbols, offering an unparalleled secure messaging service in a svelte yet sensible package. Nowadays BlackBerrys lag far behind their Android and iOS competitors.
Recent efforts to update the BlackBerry operating system and stick it on more powerful phones are steps in the right direction, but don’t go far enough, offering mostly cosmetic changes. While BlackBerry is holding on until its QNX-based phones are ready next year, even this won’t be enough to recapture market share. The company apparently cannot develop its platform at a rate that’s competitive.
To truly keep BlackBerry relevant, RIM should sacrifice the BlackBerry platform as it exists now, give up on an QNX-based future, and get into bed with Android.
Instead of wasting development time on a full operating system, it makes much more sense to focus efforts where they can make a difference. By producing a business-focused Android front-end, on the same level as Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense, BlackBerry could undo much of the damage it’s sustained in recent months.
This change in strategy would play to RIM’s strengths. Their UI developers did well on the PlayBook; why not have them implement their unique usability and UI features on an Android base? Their application developers crafted an industry-leading service in BlackBerry Messenger, why not bring that to Android too? Instead of having to worry about a full operating system, RIM could focus on core sectors, leaving existing Android apps and developers to fill in the gaps.
By adopting the Android OS, RIM could also bring its software to the same top-spec hardware as its competitors. High powered dual core processors and 720p HD screens are coming soon, and for once a BlackBerry phone could be at the same level instead of operating on lagging technology. With similar control over its hardware as HTC or Samsung and a singular focus on business-oriented keyboard phones, Blackberry hardware could once again be competitive.
Refocusing its efforts on providing the best Android experience for business users could be a pivotal next step for RIM. It’s an under-developed part of the Android space, and RIM would do well to move into before someone else does — or they go out of business entirely.