RIM Hustles as Day of Reckoning Looms

While BlackBerry 10 devices won’t become generally available until sometime in the New Year, more than 120 enterprise customers will reportedly begin testing the new platform as part of the BlackBerry 10 Technical Preview Program that is being rolled out this week.

Research in Motion did not disclose the names of the organizations that will get their hands on BB 10 in advance of its Jan. 30, 2013, launch.

This news has generated significant buzz, but “I wouldn’t call it good,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics. “There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know if it is a freight train approaching.”

RIM admits that it is facing a significant challenge ahead.

“Nobody understands better than us the challenging and competitive nature of the global smartphone market,” said RIM spokesperson Kim Geiger.

“RIM has redesigned, reengineered and reinvented the BlackBerry, and the delivery of high-quality, full-featured BlackBerry 10 smartphones remains the company’s No. 1 priority. We continue to believe that executing on this vision will have long-term benefits for the company, its customers and other stakeholders.”

Too Little Too Late?

While RIM also announced that UK carriers will get the BB10 in the new year — and more importantly, that the new platform will have 70,000 apps at launch — much of this could be taken with a grain of salt. The platform has been seriously delayed, and while that is no small number of apps, the rival Android and iOS platforms can make that number look rather insignificant.

“The 70,000 apps one is an interesting comment, and while I’d like to think this will all be solid, native apps, we’ll likely see some Web apps masquerading as native in that count as RIM continues to woo big name mobile properties into its store,” said Chris Silva, industry analyst for the Altimeter Group.

“This is similar to what we’ve seen on Windows Phone 7/8 as the marketplace numbers go up, but there’s an increasing tradeoff between the total number of apps and their average quality,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

How many of those might be legacy apps as well?

“When RIM said BB10 would launch with 70,000 apps, we don’t know how many might be running in legacy mode,” Entner added. “I doubt those are all new. That makes it kind of window dressing.”

A bigger issue is whether this matters, given BB10’s delay?

“BB 10 is a year — if not more — behind, so the question is whether this is an updated BB 10 or the BB 10 that was supposed to launch a year ago,” Entner told the E-Commerce Times. “How is it compared to Android and iOS today?”

Enterprising Move

RIM’s focus on enterprise clients is understandable, given they represent a large segment of its user base. Large enterprises and government offices have been reluctant to drop the BlackBerry platform, in spite of the company’s fall from glory in the past couple of years, as it still offers stronger security than Android or iOS.

That is no longer the trump card it once was, though. Many IT managers are now allowing employees to bring their own devices to work.

“IT managers liked that RIM couldn’t do some things, like play a lot of games,” said Entner. “In a way, their backwardness was RIM’s virtue.”

The fact that 120 companies are already testing the new platform is a hopeful sign — for RIM — that the BYOD trend hasn’t made it irrelevant.

“There are a lot of companies that are still very email-centric and they value the security that comes with RIM,” stressed Entner. “Those are probably the 120 customers using RIM in the preview, but there could be just five-10 people in each business. If you give them the opportunity to use it, of course they will try it.”

Small acorns do yield oak trees, but only if the acorn survives!

“The 120-customer commitment is encouraging, but it’s telling to me that they’ve highlighted the number of organizations and shied away from talking about the total number of devices or server licenses that means,” Silva noted.

“They did make a smart move in opting to transition existing BES server licenses to the new version that will support BB10,” he acknowledged. “Had they stayed the course and forced an upgrade fee for any business looking to support their next generation of devices, it would have been strategic seppuku.”

Do-or-Die Time

What is clear is that BlackBerry won’t likely retake the No. 1 smartphone spot — that is something even the company’s most loyal customers can’t expect. Still, if RIM can manage to find a solid niche, the company could retain a place in the market.

“RIM could start growing again and carve out a successful No. 3 spot,” said telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan.

To get there, the company faces two challenges, he said.

“First, stop customers from exiting,” Kagan told the E-Commerce Times. “Second, win customers back. If they can do this with BB10, it will be a huge success. Then they can start building once again.”

Failing that, RIM could go the way of another once-hot mobile device maker.

“Palm was a very successful smartphone provider, second only to RIM,” Kagan emphasized. “Palm too fell off the fast growth track. They reinvented themselves as well. When they introduced their new technology, the media and analysts loved it. It sounded like Palm was going to start to grow again.”

In the end, the biggest threat to RIM could be RIM.

“A lot of what was on RIM’s side was IT inertia,” said Entner. “They’ve lost that, and the inertia is going the other way. Even a lukewarm or haphazard launch would kill the company. They have one chance left. This better be good.”

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