When RIM announced its first new handsets based on the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 platform last week, I was struck by a weird sense of déjà vu: Three years earlier, Microsoft announced Windows Phone, an earlier attempt by a once-dominant mobile player to reestablish itself in a world turned upside down by iPhone and Android. Sadly, I suspect that RIM will see similar levels of success to Microsoft’s similarly innovative but largely ignored efforts.
In the old days, I would have rooted for this underdog, as I did in the 1990s for such platforms as the Amiga, Be OS, NextStep, and IBM’s OS/2. These systems, like BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone, were demonstrably better in many ways than the market leaders of their day.
But I’m no longer the idealistic, younger Paul, and the thought of taking to the modern version of whatever BBS I used 20 years ago -- Twitter? -- to defend this well-intentioned but ultimately pointless new mobile platform is decidedly uninteresting to me. But the problem isn’t that RIM -- now renamed to BlackBerry -- hasn’t come up with some special new features in BB10; it has. It’s that none of it matters.
Yes, truth be told, I’m a fan and user of Windows Phone, and you might understandably claim that my preferences here are coloring my perception of BB10. But that’s not the case. Windows Phone is excellent in its own right, but the real reason I feel comfortable recommending it to others is that it’s part of a much broader Microsoft ecosystem that includes products such as Windows, Office, SkyDrive, Skype, Xbox, and many more.
BB10, meanwhile, is the last-ditch effort by a company that has no other products or platforms on which to fall back. It can’t be propped up by other successful products and brought along into the future if it doesn’t do well in the market. RIM, you might recall, has had only two successful products in recent years: its enterprise-oriented BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES), which is also being updated, and its smartphones, which I’d remind you have now fallen to all-time-lows from a market share perspective. RIM’s tablet offering, the PlayBook, sold so poorly it’s now an industry joke.
Oh, there are innovations in BB10 that do make my heart sing. Its evolved Flow user interface dispenses with hardware buttons and uses screen edge-based gestures, much like Windows 8 does, but in a more elegant fashion. The BlackBerry Hub consolidates messages and conversations from multiple and diverse sources, such as email, messaging, and BBM, a sort of Windows Phone-like “de-appification” that appears to be very successful. The new onscreen keyboard looks fantastic. There are even new camera innovations that seem interesting.
Where I’m shaken out of an illogical belief that maybe, just maybe, they’ll pull this one off, however, is in BB10’s other big software innovation, Balance. This interesting separation of work- and play-related interfaces, which extends all the way to remote device wipes only wiping work-related data, is something I’m surprised Windows Phone doesn’t already have. (Although Kid’s Corner points the way, if you’re familiar with that feature.) But Balance would be a great idea on virtually any other phone. Just not on a BlackBerry.
Here’s why. RIM likes to point to its user base, still tens of millions strong. But I think that most BlackBerry users are essentially prisoners, forced to use the devices by the few remaining businesses, governmental entities, or other employers that haven’t simply given up and moved on to iPhone or Android handsets. These people do indeed have work- and play-related needs, but they never think “play” when they pick up a BlackBerry. After all, the closest thing that device ever had to fun was a lame game called Brick Breaker. Why would anyone trust media services from this firm? Even Microsoft can’t get this right after a decade and a half.
BlackBerry can change its stripes, of course. And arguably it has to, given the way the world has gone. But with Android and iPhone nicely establishing a duopoly in the smartphone market, and Windows Phone racing to a very distant third place sometime this year, time is running out for BlackBerry. Indeed, Google and Apple, which make Android and iPhone, respectively, share that one thing with Microsoft’s Windows Phone that BlackBerry lacks: They make entire ecosystems with various hardware, software, and services components. The phone is important because it’s part of that ecosystem. Not because it’s a phone.
RIM’s earlier inability to expand its ecosystem beyond the phone tells me that this firm and its admitted intriguing new platform have an even harder path ahead than does Microsoft. And again, Windows Phone hasn’t exactly taken off in the market place, and Windows 8 -- another new mobile platform -- is obviously off to a mixed start as well.
So I’ll silently celebrate BlackBerry and what the company has accomplished with BB10. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve been here before and that this is, if not too little, than certainly too late.