Future of Wireless: It's a BlackBerry AND iPhone World--and That's a Good Thing

CIO.com writer Tom Kaneshige says Apple's revolutionary iPhone will spell the end for RIM and its BlackBerry in the coming years. CrackBerry addict and CIO.com pundit Al Sacco says the idea is laughable. Here's why.

Wed, May 12, 2010

CIO — Less than stellar earnings. Browser blues. An aging OS. BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) (RIM) seems to earn more criticism than praise these days.

CIO.com Future of Wireless Logo

Some of this "feedback" is deserved. Partly due to the mega-popularity of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, users have come to expect a lot from smartphones, including RIM's. But as for the opinion that the iPhone will spell the end of the BlackBerry as we know it--a position that CIO.com Senior Online Writer and Apple aficionado Tom Kaneshige espouses--I say it's misinformed and short-sighted. (Read Kaneshige's take in his companion piece, "Goodbye BlackBerry: Future Belongs to iPhone")

images of Apple iPhone 3GS and RIM BlackBerry Bold 9000
Apple iPhone 3GS and RIM BlackBerry Bold 9000

I won't say some of Kaneshige's points, which I'll address shortly, aren't legitimate concerns for RIM and its customers. But any company worth its salt constantly faces challenges from competitors. And companies like RIM welcome that competition; it keeps them on their corporate "toes."

Here's my rant take on why the future of RIM and the BlackBerry is solid, despite the iPhone's rise in popularity and increased competition from companies like Google (GOOG), Palm (PALM) and Microsoft (MSFT), HTC.

The BlackBerry OS

RIM's BlackBerry OS is admittedly the area where the company has the most work cut out for it. The BlackBerry OS is functional, but it ain't always pretty--especially when compared to Apple's iPhone OS--or Palm webOS. That's largely due to the fact that RIM originally designed its software for business users. RIM's core BlackBerry software has slowly evolved over the years, but in truth, it doesn't feel all that much different than it did three years ago.

Kaneshige says the BlackBerry OS is "too complex" for users. I disagree. On the contrary, I think all the advanced options and settings in the core BlackBerry software are actually a good thing--at least for users who are tech-savvy enough to feel comfortable experimenting with them. Settings within the BlackBerry "Screen/Keyboard" section, for instance, let users customize their BlackBerry smartphones to a degree that's unavailable to iPhone users.

And the ability to employ "themes" lets BlackBerry users customize their device UI even further. iPhone users can't customize their devices' home screens, beyond shifting application icons--at least not until iPhone 4.0 is available. "Jailbreaking" allows for additional customization but also opens up security holes. Customization is one of the BlackBerry OS strengths and RIM would be wise to build on this, not do away with it.

Many critics think RIM should scrap its existing OS and build a new one "from scratch." But at the moment, RIM seems to be mostly dressing up the BlackBerry OS with design-oriented tweaks while adding minor functionalities and improving upon existing features in BlackBerry OS v6.0, or "BlackBerry 6," the upcoming version of the software. That's a step in the right direction, but it's also the reason why RIM's OS is starting to feel stale to long-time users.

I'm not sure I agree with the whole tear-it-down-and-build-anew idea, but I'm certain RIM needs to make some major changes to its BlackBerry OS. And I think it will in the coming years. That's all BlackBerry users really want: something that feels fresh and exciting. I'm talking about aesthetics like smoother screen and app transitions, better scrolling/navigation, etc. But a whole new, unique approach to UI would also go a long way to reviving RIM's OS.

Early looks at BlackBerry 6 seem to suggest the company is on the right track--think even more customization options and a "modern" look and feel, on top of the OS's strong foundation. But we'll have to wait until later this year when RIM releases BlackBerry 6 to judge the new OS ourselves.

Bottom line: There's plenty of room for improvement, but RIM's OS is far from a lost cause. I have enough faith in the company and its engineers to believe they understand that it's time for a real change. Assuming the company can meet this challenge--and I believe it can--the BlackBerry OS has a strong future ahead of it.

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