These are dark days for Research In Motion (RIM) and its BlackBerry brand...or at least dim ones.
The Canadian company is struggling with an increasingly negative market perception, shrinking customer loyalty as long-time BlackBerry users move on, and stiff competition from rivals, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, among other things. (Read more details on why 2012 could be a particularly tough year for RIM and BlackBerry.)
But that doesn't mean it should all be doom and gloom for RIM right now. Here are five reasons why current BlackBerry users and others interested in the brand and its future should remain optimistic in the coming months.
1) BlackBerry 7.1 OS Updates for BlackBerry 7 Smartphones
Earlier this year, RIM announced that the latest version of its BlackBerry OS, BlackBerry 7.1, will be rolling out shortly via a variety of North American wireless carriers. And that's great news for anyone with a BlackBerry 7 smartphone, since OS 7.1 is a fairly significant update with a variety of cool new features.
BlackBerry 7.1 features and enhancements include Near Field Communications (NFC) and BlackBerry Tag support (read more about Tag here); Mobile Hotspot to turn your BlackBerry handheld into your own personal and portable Wi-Fi router; Wi-Fi calling, to make voice calls over the Internet and reduce the use of your monthly allotment of cellular voice minutes; a new version of RIM's BlackBerry Traffic app that offers free turn-by-turn navigation, and much more.
Some versions of BlackBerry 7.1 also reportedly feature a cool new "battery saving mode" to help your smartphone stay up and running longer.
A variety of U.S. carriers have already reportedly released OS 7.1 for select devices, including T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. Unfortunately, only BlackBerry smartphones running RIM's BlackBerry 7 OS are compatible with the 7.1 software, so users with older BlackBerrys are out of luck.
Though BlackBerry 7.1 certainly isn't BlackBerry 10--RIM's upcoming OS that's built on a new and completely different software foundation--it's definitely worth the update, and it ought to help tide over anxious CrackBerry users until BlackBerry 10 becomes available in late 2012 or early 2013.
Find more details on the BlackBerry OS 7.1 update on RIM's Inside BlackBerry blog.
2) BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 Software
BlackBerry handhelds aren't the only RIM devices getting major software updates; RIM's PlayBook tablet is also set to receive a significant software makeover this month. BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 is expected to be released for RIM tablets sometime in February, and it contains a variety of cool new and valuable features, not the least of which is the much-anticipated Android Player for PlayBook, which will enable users to run certain Android applications on their RIM tablets. (Read more details about how the PlayBook will run Android software.)
Additional features include "native" PlayBook personal information management (PIM) apps so users can access their e-mail, contacts, calendar and more without using RIM's BlackBerry Bridge software; improved and updated document editing functionality; a new "Print to Go" app that lets you wirelessly connect to compatible nearby printers; and an "open on" feature that lets you quickly open up files and other content stored on your smartphone or your PlayBook tablet.
RIM's BlackBerry Bridge 2.0 software also lets you employ your BlackBerry smartphone to control a PlayBook tablet and use your handheld's keyboard to type messages and text.
Read more details about PlayBook 2.0 on RIM's website.
3) New BlackBerry 7 Curve Devices
BlackBerry users may not see any new BlackBerry 10 devices until later this year, or maybe even early next year, but that doesn't mean RIM won't be releasing any new handhelds. RIM should soon announce and release two new, low-end, entry-level smartphones: the Curves 9220 and 9320.
Neither the Curve 9220 nor the Curve 9320 will likely turn many heads--they look almost exactly like the current line of Curve smartphones--but they're both solid upgrades to an already popular product line. And they're aimed at new smartphone users who may not want or need the latest and greatest devices with cutting edge features.
More specifically, the Curve 9220, codenamed "Davis," and Curve 9320, dubbed "Armstrong", both have the same display resolutions (320x240) as the earlier Curve 9300, 8520 and 83xx families of devices, according to reports. But they will both allegedly also run the BlackBerry 7 OS; the 9320 supports HSPA+ data transfer while the 9220 is EDGE only; they pack digital cameras with flash(3.2 megapixels for the 9320 and 2 megapixels for the 9220); and they both have Bluetooth and FM radio support--the 9320 also has GPS.
RIM also seems ready to continue to release additional BlackBerry 7 devices in white. The company already released a number of white Torch, Bold and Curve handhelds, and more models should be available soon, such as the Bold 9790 and Curve 9380. (I know some BlackBerry users who love white devices, but personally, I think there's just something wrong with white BlackBerrys.)
4) Additional Details on BlackBerry 10 Smartphones
RIM has released very few official details regarding the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS, formerly referred to as BBX, except for the fact that it will be built on a foundation from QNX Systems, just like the PlayBook software, and as such, it will likely be quite similar to the RIM's tablet OS.
BlackBerry 10 will feature an Android Player similar to the one found in the PlayBook OS. And the first BlackBerry 10 smartphone should arrive in late 2012, according to RIM. (Check out this concept image of a BlackBerry 10 prototype device for an idea of what the first BlackBerry 10 handheld might look like.)
Other than that, little is known about RIM's new OS, though it is clear that RIM's future in the mobile space will hinge on the success of BlackBerry 10. Current BlackBerry users can take comfort in the fact that RIM will slowly share details about BlackBerry 10 in the coming months, to tease the first device's planned late 2012 release. And RIM will probably share many details and offer hands-on demos of BlackBerry 10 devices at its BlackBerry World 2012 conference in May.
5) New or Renewed BlackBerry Focus on Consumer Smartphone Market
RIM has always been a company that caters to the business or enterprise market much more efficiently and effectively than the much larger consumer market. But if RIM's new CEO Thorsten Heins gets his way that could all change in 2012. (Read more details on Heins and his background.)
"We need to be closer to our consumer user base. We're well positioned with CIOs...but in the US, we need to do a better job there [targeting consumers]," Heins said in a press conference held just after he took the BlackBerry CEO reigns. "I want us to focus more on consumers and consumer marketing. That is a major change for us. That is an element that we need to strengthen, that we need to build."
And Heins plans to quickly bring on a brand new marketing chief to lead the charge. What exactly will come from this effort remains to be seen. But you can expect to see more aggressive and high-profile advertising from RIM and perhaps more celebrity endorsements--RIM has been bringing on celebrities to tout the BlackBerry brand for years, but it never really publicized those partnerships. Perhaps the company will begin to spread the word about these endorsements.
And we could see more sports-oriented advertising, as well, in the vein of RIM's recent NHL All Star Game Skill Competition "BlackBerry Hardest Shot" event sponsorship and related PlayBook marketing campaign. (Let's just hope it doesn't come in the form of additional appearances from The Bold Team. Yikes.)
Whatever comes of this new focus on the consumer marketthe new entery-level Curve devices could be the first step--the next few months should be very eventful for RIM.