BlackBerry World 2011: Is RIM Knocking It Out of the Park or Lobbing Soft Balls?

[image via Yahoo News]


This week’s BlackBerry World Conference is meant to show off the latest and greatest BlackBerry products and software offerings — as well as give a sneak peek into what RIM, the makers of the popular BlackBerry smartphones and PlayBook tablet — have planned.    Unlike many prior years (where the conference was branded as the Wireless Enterprise Symposium, or WES for short), there is a sense that RIM is struggling with the challenge of reinventing its brand and platform.

Recent announcements such as the new crop of BlackBerry smartphones and PlayBook updates are…to be blunt, falling a bit flat.   A touchscreen Bold running OS 6.1 … oh, sorry, I mean BlackBerry OS 7 with ‘liquid graphics’ for a faster user interface and browsing experience?   A dedicated Facebook Application?   News that your BlackBerry PlayBook will be getting native email, calendar and contact features … sometime this summer?!?

It’s not the stuff dreams are made of.   The biggest, jawdropping moment during the BlackBerry World conference keynote was when — gasp! — Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft….MICROSOFT!!!…took to the stage.   What the–??  What alternate universe has the leader of Microsoft speaking at a BlackBerry conference?   What Mr. Ballmer highlighted, and what the keynote showed overall, was that the BlackBerry platform is gasping for air — and perhaps fighting for it’s life.

Let me be up front.  I’m a BlackBerry fan.  I’ve attended the WES-now-BlackBerry-World conferences over the years. One of my roles in my ‘day job’ of dealing with enterprise mobility is being one one of the BES administrators (BlackBerry Enterprise Servers for you non-corporate BB wielders out there) for my employer.   When the iPhone first hit the scene, it didn’t make as much noise corporately as it does today.    It was a far different world in the late nineties/early 2000’s.    My love for BlackBerry has waned bit by bit.  I still think BES is a terrific infrastructure for managing the BlackBerry smartphones for a company — and I’ll be honest, the news that Francis brought in that RIM is going to open up BES to support iOS and Android is HUGE.   In fact, that move alone may very well be their only foothold in the enterprise space in years to come (more thoughts on that in the coming days…).

Why?   The tides aren’t just changing, they’ve hit and washed RIM to the sidelines to watch Apple and Google come in with behemoth operating systems that — make no bones about it — are built on the foundation of Apps.  Developers flock to iOS.   They love the open source and customization found in Android.   Do developers run out in droves to program Java-based (or even Web Based ‘Web Works’ applications) for BlackBerry?   Hardly.

The company I work for has implemented an Individual Liable policy for mobile devices.  If you own it, want to connect it and use it for work so be it.  All we require is it meets our security requirements for Passcode Lock and Remote Wipe.   BlackBerry has lived on this for years — and includes hundreds of granular security policies in BES to block everything from making calls to using the camera.  But do people want that?  Heck no.   That’s why, in just 2 years we’ve seen iOS devices top the device of choice our company with every meeting filled with iPhones and iPads. Android, which we only started supporting with 2.2, is now already the 2nd top mobile OS used where I work.  Just last month Android added an additional six hundred of our corporate users.   BlackBerry?  Flat lined.  And therein lies the problem RIM faces.


[image courtesy of BerryReview]

The keynote put an even larger spotlight on it.   To have Steve Ballmer.  STEVE.  BALLMER.  Come out and wax ecstatic over the RIM/Microsoft partnership to have Bing power all of the BlackBerry search services shows just how much has changed.  While iOS and Android have grown massively, Microsoft has absorbed Nokia and is now partnering with RIM to keep both Windows Phone and BlackBerry relevant.     Ballmer’s hints at how BlackBerry will tie into the hooks of Microsoft’s cloud services, Office 365, etc further highlights the lines drawn in the sand.

Microsoft and RIM still want to win the hearts and minds of the consumers, but they know deep down they’re also fighting just to keep corporate users.    There are lots of companies who employ the corporate provisioned BlackBerry as the only choice.   That won’t change any time soon — and, to be blunt, that makes up the majority of attendees at BlackBerry World.   But RIM still doesn’t attract developers and the strategy they’re going for is splintered at best.

Smartphones.  BlackBerry OS 6 and 7.  Look at all the cool features — never mind the loads all those ‘antiquated’ BlackBerrys running the 4.X and 5.0 operating systems without even a skant webkit browser.    Developers have to take those into consideration — or just focus on the ‘new.’   But wait, now there’s QNX.


While QNX shines on the PlayBook, the BlackBerry tablet launch was half-baked.   Features that should have been there from day one are ‘coming soon’ or being announced this week at BlackBerry World.   Not to mention it will likely be another 1-2 years before the BlackBerry smartphones will even run QNX (which will probably be ‘BlackBerry OS 8′ or ’12’ by then).   If I want to develop for the smartphones today I have to use Java or RIM’s Web Works approach.

If I want to develop for their PlayBook tablet, I can use Java or Adobe Air.  Or heck, just focus on making an Android app to run in the PlayBook’s Android player.    RIM touts this as choice.  But in reality there are development considerations as to what programming language, application features and device I want to target.  While giving Android developers the opportunity to submit their apps to RIM for PlayBook use is interesting, how many developers even care about the PlayBook?

Sure, sure.  RIM showed off some interesting BlackBerry Messenger integration with applications like Foursquare and previewed some Augmented Reality features ‘coming soon’ … but there is no real excitement.    By the time RIM brings these features to market, there will probably be an iPhone 5, iPad 3 and 5,000 new Android phones sporting even more innovation.   I’ll say it again, I’ve been a BlackBerry fan, but these days the only time I pull out a BlackBerry phone over an iPhone or Android phone is usually when I need to test something with our corporate BlackBerry users over our BES.   Or when I’m attending a BlackBerry conference 😉

RIM really needed a home run here at BlackBerry World, but so far I’m just not seeing it.  And RIM, that pains me.

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