by Al Sacco

Future of Wireless: It’s a BlackBerry AND iPhone World–and That’s a Good Thing

May 12, 2010
CarriersiPhoneMobile writer Tom Kaneshige says Apple's revolutionary iPhone will spell the end for RIM and its BlackBerry in the coming years. CrackBerry addict and pundit Al Sacco says the idea is laughable. Here's why.

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

Some of this “feedback” is deserved. Partly due to the mega-popularity of Apple’s 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 Senior Online Writer and Apple aficionado Tom Kaneshige espouses–I say it’s misinformed and short-sighted.

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, Palm and Microsoft, 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.

Device, Carrier Freedom of Choice

There’s only one iPhone. (Well, there are a couple of different models, but aside from a few internal components and software tweaks, they’re all the same–at least from the perspective of an average user. That could change in the future, i.e., Apple may release different versions of the iPhone instead of just upgrading it every year, but who knows when that might happen.)

Some folks say Apple’s single iPhone design is a good thing. I disagree.

It’s naive to think that one device can or will satisfy the specific needs of millions, even billions, of tech-savvy individuals. RIM knows this; that’s why most major wireless carriers offer at least a few BlackBerry models. In fact, RIM’s website currently lists at least 10 different BlackBerry versions that are available for purchase. And BlackBerrys are available from every major wireless carrier in the United States and Canada.

This is why RIM’s currently one of the top five handset makers in the world, according to IDC. (Not just smartphones, all handsets.) Apple’s not even close.

Kaneshige says BlackBerrys are “forced” onto employees in corporate environments, and this will over time hurt RIM and the BlackBerry. But no organization I know of says you can’t use an iPhone for a personal phone along with your corporate-purchased BlackBerry. And at least if you have to use a BlackBerry for work, you typically have some say in which device you get. If an iPhone was “forced” on you, you’d have no choice at all, in hardware or carrier.

Another factor: If you already use a BlackBerry, chances are IT will support your existing phone so you can employ it for work-purposes. Not necessarily so with the iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone is currently available on a single carrier in the United States: AT&T. That’s Apple’s doing; the company decided it could best hype its smartphone and reap the most financial rewards by sticking with a single carrier. Forget the fact that users might, you know, want some kind of say in which carrier they choose. That’s just not Apple’s concern.

As is, people who aren’t willing to bend their ways to Apple’s, or who want choice in hardware or carrier, or even something as simple as a “real” physical QWERTY keyboard, will look elsewhere. It might be BlackBerry. It might be Android or Windows Phone 7. But it won’t be iPhone.

RIM’s strong relationships with carriers, and its wide selection of devices, will most definitely help the company in the future, while Apple’s strong-arm style of doing business with carriers, and its single iPhone form-factor will inevitably hurt it in the long run.

Mobile Application Ecosystem

I’m just going to say it: Applications for the iPhone are often better than comparable BlackBerry apps. Many factors contribute to this reality, including limited BlackBerry developer tools and financial incentive, but it’s really this simple: The iPhone is a Web-surfing, mobile app machine. Running apps is what the iPhone was designed to do. And it does it well…though it doesn’t really multitask and probably won’t, at least for the foreseeable future. (“iTasking” doesn’t count, not for me.) Everything else is really just window dressing.

The BlackBerry is the opposite: RIM’s first “handhelds” were just pagers and messaging units. As such, RIM’s real strengths are e-mail and messaging. Web surfing? Meh. And applications? Not so much. Even though RIM’s been making smartphones for significantly longer than Apple, the iTunes App Store launched well before BlackBerry App World.

During the past few years, if you wanted a device for applications–and you knew your smartphones–you very likely picked the iPhone. And if you wanted a device for messaging, you probably went the BlackBerry route. (Or, if you wanted the best of both worlds, like me, you got a BlackBerry and an iPhone.)

Naturally, both companies are currently attempting to fill in the OS gaps. Apple is adding many new messaging, e-mail and security-oriented tweaks in iPhone OS 4.0 and RIM is working to make the BlackBerry a more formidable contender in the application space, via new developer tools and App World enhancements, along with OS tweaks and other modifications.

To me, the iPhone and BlackBerry are still two very different tools for different types of users. They both have overlapping features and functionalities, and that overlap is increasing every day. But I actually think the BlackBerry and iPhone compliment each other, since they really highlight their respective strengths and weaknesses. And I don’t see that drastically changing any time soon.

For my money, I want a “physical” keyboard on my main device, because I can type faster and more accurately on one than I can a virtual, or touch-screen, keyboard. I can practically hear all you iPhone-loving naysayers calling me a fool as I write this. But I’ve spent plenty of time with both the iPhone and various BlackBerrys, and the BlackBerry keyboard–excluding SureType–wins every time when it comes to rapid typing. (In fact, if Apple really wanted to grab my attention, it would release an iPhone with a hardware keyboard&though I’m not holding my breath.)

On the flip side, if an application is available for both BlackBerry and iPhone, I almost always buy the iPhone version. And I’m usually glad I did. But that doesn’t mean Apple’s going to sink RIM’s ship. Not by a long shot. Apps are only a piece of the overall puzzle, as is messaging. And RIM’s whole “super-apps” developer-push will surely bring some cool new BlackBerry apps to the table in the future.

Also, Apple’s closed “walled-garden” approach to app development and distribution isn’t exactly appealing to many developers, so as additional platforms and their app-ecosystems mature, you just may see quality developers jump ship. That could quickly level the application playing field for other mobile platforms.

Bottom line: The iPhone is an amazing device that has turned the mobile space on its head. I give mountains of credit to Apple for stepping in and stirring up the industry. Competition breeds innovation, and it’s innovation that turned the smartphone world into one of the most exciting modern-day tech sectors.

But the BlackBerry isn’t going anywhere any time soon–especially not because of one single consumer-oriented device like the iPhone. Sorry, Mr. Kaneshige, but you–and your precious iPhone–can take that to the bank.