It could be too late for BlackBerry 10
30th Jan 2013 | 23:44
It's good…but questions remain
RIM is dead, long live BlackBerry – but it faces an almost impossible task to win over smartphone users.
It's fashionable for technology journalists to criticise BlackBerry no matter what it does; actually, any non market-leading company that has the audacity to tell the world it actually can make a success of its new product. Nokia was, and to a degree, still is the master at this trick (LOOK! You can use it with gloves! It's the future!) and there was something almost apologetic about CEO Thorsten Heins taking to the stage to announce something that's already been shown off many times around the world.
The only vague surprise came from the handsets, but even those had been leaked months ago – so we were subjected to slightly awkward asides from Heins while Vivek Bardwaj smoothly showed off a number of features most of the audience had already seen.
But it's important not to be an armchair critic with things like this – let's look at BB10, rather than think about the years of failure to innovate that RIM forced us to endure. It is a new company after all.
If you lined up all the main mobile operating systems, you'd argue there are four areas of innovation that the others don't have: BlackBerry Hub, Peek, stronger multitasking and Balance.
The Hub is the unified inbox of old, but more visible and easier to access: it allows you to see all your notifications with a 'simple' up and right swipe (which actually can be a little hard to activate each time with accuracy). It's a nifty feature, although one that Android Jelly Bean has eclipsed with even greater info.
But BlackBerry Balance is the area in which the company can build the most differentiation, there's no doubt about that. Bring your own device (BYOD) is becoming enormously popular with staff who were once forced to carry a BlackBerry to get the security their company demanded, and was partly the reason that the company began to fall in the first place as iPhone or Android devices became so strongly requested.
So Balance is the ultimate way to achieve this: all the info and apps you want, and all the safety and security in a separate partition to stop your IT department losing sleep - although many will have to upgrade systems to use it. It's an excellent addition, although Windows Phone offers the full Office suite on the go, which is something that a lot of workers are relishing at the moment.
But… well, that's it, and once you see past that smaller demographic of BYOD-ers you get to the crux of the problem BlackBerry is facing: convincing the person on the street who just wants the best smartphone that a BB is the one for them.
The keys on the Q10 will help. Users still love keys. But the user who might want an iPhone, or might want a Samsung Galaxy because they've heard that's a 'good' phone to have - what would pull them toward BlackBerry? Fancy gestures? Average-looking hardware and specs?
And let's not forget a massively understocked app store compared to the rivals - these are the things that matter to consumers. And the price isn't cheap either, which makes buying a BlackBerry phone another tricky sell.
Speaking to Andrew Bocking, Senior VP Software Product Management for BlackBerry, he gave a very vague sense of the user the company was looking at: "We're building for the very connected, the very socially aware, those that are very communication driven; they're focused on getting things done, they're doers, acters, closers."
You can read between the marketing lines here: BlackBerry is looking for the user who wants an organised life, information on the go, but a decent smartphone experience too, and there's no doubt that with BB10 BlackBerry has delivered on that aim. It's clear to see that the new range is among the best integrated on the market.
But the rivals have pretty much offered that already; the iPhone or most top Android phones are more than capable of keeping your life in check and have the added advantage of apps and a mature ecosystem to boot.
Add to that the lack of a budget BB10 handset at launch, and BlackBerry has alienated another massive part of the market (although Bocking tells us to 'sit tight, you'll see it' on that area) – BBM flourished in the PAYG markets, but some research points a decline in use for the once-dominant app so by the time budget BB10 appears, the likes of iMessage might have sucked users away.
In short, BB10 is a decent enough product that doesn't add enough to impress the smartphone buyer on the street. The new phones don't ooze a premium feel or instil gadget lust, and while the gestures are cool they risk putting off many who want a simple experience.
And the price is simply too high to start, something BlackBerry has traditionally struggled with. BlackBerry talks a lot about the loyal BlackBerry fanbase, but it lost a lot of that loyalty with the massive outages of recent years, and just changing the name isn't going to make that all better overnight.
Users need trust in a system – it's surprising that BlackBerry didn't make more of the fact the new OS would help massively reduce the chances of outages.
What if Apple made BlackBerry?
Before anyone screeches that we're just bashing BlackBerry, consider the platform in a vacuum. If BlackBerry 10 was unveiled by Apple as the new iOS, we would have scratched our heads that such a design-led company had created a more workman-like OS.
If it was done by Samsung as an overlay to Android, we'd urge it to bring back the more simple TouchWiz, as we don't need the extra gestures or work and play modes. And if Nokia did it – well, it would probably get as much development as MeeGo, the most underloved OS of all.
We're not saying BlackBerry has no chance – it just has to find a way to make a dent in a market that's dominated by Apple and Android, to the tune of 92 per cent – but as Bocking said: "We're not entering the [smartphone] market, we're already in it, so we don't have to crack the congested space."
BB10 is good. It's slick and performs well. It just doesn't seem to offer a game-changing experience or a reason for consumers to ditch their incumbent device, nor does it do so at a decent price point. The embarrassment of Stephen Bates' appearance on British TV and radio served to highlight that the company was desperate to talk about how it was changing but missed the crucial element of admitting it had made mistakes in the first place.
If we're lamenting the death of BB in a year's time, it will be a huge shame as a market with innovation is one to cherish – but if it does happen, it will be because the much-needed redesign came just too late.