BlackBerry fragmentation is the spectre that haunts RIM

Summary:What does beleaguered device maker RIM need to do to halt BlackBerry's slide? The key lies in whether it gets developer relations right and fends off fragmentation with the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS.

There's little question that BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has been suffering at the hands of its mobile rivals' successes in the last two years. What's now key to RIM's future growth, if not survival, is how well it manages the launch of BlackBerry 10 as a platform and the devices themselves.

BlackBerry 10
RIM is betting big on BlackBerry 10. Image: Ben Woods

If it doesn't sort these out, then it runs the risk of developer indifference and the threat of fragmentation. And it's these, more than the lacklustre uptake of consumer devices and a failure to respond quickly to market changes that have been blamed for its woes, that could derail the Canadian company's comeback.

RIM plans to put out at least six new handsets running BlackBerry 10 at the start of this year, of which at least one will be full touchscreen and one will be a combination of QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen display, according to a recent report in Pocket-Lint.

RIM's gamble

If six BlackBerrys do arrive, here's what I think we'll end up with. Two will be touchscreen-only, another couple a touchscreen-keyboard combos, and the last pair will be mid-to-low range, to keep the BlackBerry Messenger crowd happy.

Having a diverse handset range is a smart move — compare with HTC and how each of its phones looks essentially the same. But a wide range could also serve to dilute sales and could confuse buyers: will they be able tell at a glance that two handsets with different designs actually have the same level of features?

It's a gamble. It could turn out that it would have been a better idea to work really, really hard on releasing one or two Earth-shatteringly good devices.

RIM was forced to postpone the release of BlackBerry 10 and its accompanying phones and tablets — the OS was meant to arrive before the end of 2012, but is now due during the first three months of next year. However, Roberta Cozza, Gartner's principal mobility analyst for Western Europe, thinks the delay could actually work in the company's favour.

"Could you see them coming out in Q4 and being noticed?" she asked. "Q1 next year isn't such a bad thing for them."

The fourth-quarter competition is formidable: Nokia unveiled its first Windows 8-based Lumia handsets on Wednesday, and Apple is expected to take the wraps off iPhone 5 on 12 September.

Get developers on side

While the delay may have turned out a canny move, it doesn't help with more pressing issues facing RIM, such as developer retention — something that goes hand-in-hand with fragmentation.

RIM is stronger among enterprise rather than consumer buyers. But that doesn't mean it should ignore developers. There are signs it is trying to get them on side with financial incentives , but is it enough?

Cozza believes RIM will become marginalised if it continues on its current trajectory and fails to invigorate its developers and ecosystem.

"What really counts is the fact that they will struggle to get developers on board. Even today, if you go into AppWorld,  it's just not comparable" — Roberta Cozza, Gartner

"We are seeing the [market] share reducing, and we're forecasting volumes decreasing from 2012. By 2016, we have them down to three-percent [share] in the longer term — so mainly a niche player," she told me.

Despite its efforts to attract developers with its BlackBerry Jam events, RIM has not succeeded in getting many to write for its platforms, particularly in an exclusive way.

"What really counts is the fact that they will struggle to get developers on board. Even today, if you go into AppWorld,  it's just not comparable," Cozza said, noting that she used the PlayBook for a long time. "I'm not just talking about the sheer number of applications, but the media consumption, the content." 

She pointed out that RIM chief Thorsten Heins has said the company will decrease its focus on multimedia and content on its devices.

"Before, they tried to do their own media and so on," she said. "They're going to reduce that, [so] they need more partnerships, definitely."

One more drastic option for RIM is to fork a more popular platform such as Android, as Amazon did for the Kindle Fire. After all, the BlackBerry maker conceded more than 18 months ago that it won't be able to catch up with the Google and Apple ecosystems, even by allowing Android apps to run on its platform. But what message does that send to developers ?

Plus, if RIM did go own the forking route, the platform wouldn't be Google-certified, meaning it wouldn't have access to the Google Play store or the usual Android apps.

Fragmentation

After developer indifference, the second potential problem for RIM is fragmentation — an issue more often associated with Android phones. In enterprises that have already rolled out BlackBerry handsets, there could well be a mix of old and new devices knocking around, which could be running anything between BlackBerry 5 and BlackBerry 7. 

Fast forward to sometime early next year, when RIM's BlackBerry 10 devices have started hitting the shops and are making their way into the enterprise alongside those older phones. The new OS is based on the QNX operating system used in RIM's PlayBook tablet — a different technology to earlier versions of the phone platform. This requires a new version of BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which RIM is putting out at the same time. While the manufacturer has assured customers that the update will also work with earlier devices , it does raise questions.

What if future versions of the BlackBerry OS make it impossible, or even just inefficient, to manage older devices with the one piece of software? And will it require any kind of upgrade fee? If it does, will a business that currently uses older BlackBerry devices be given incentives to move to BlackBerry 10, as opposed to Windows Phone 8, iOS, or something else? These are all questions for a company planning to upgrade its fleet.

And while huge organisations with a need for tightly locked-down security — such as government or financial institutions — may need to stick with RIM's products due to a lack of highly secure competition, other less security-stringent companies will likely begin to look elsewhere if BlackBerrys can't offer convenience.

"Enterprise users are considering other options. I don't think they [RIM] can deny it, really" — Roberta Cozza, Gartner

"Enterprise users are considering other options. I don't think they [RIM] can deny it, really," Cozza said. "What enterprise is seeing is that some users also want to deploy tablets, but what can [businesses] do? All the smartphone base is on BlackBerry 5, 6, or 7, and then you have a completely different platform for the PlayBook tablet."

"It's really a mess from a platform perspective," she added. "Perhaps enterprises that ban the iPad or really want specific security features or policies [will stick with RIM], but we don't see [the rest] going back."

Ultimately, if RIM decides it can't win, or even play, in the consumer market anymore, it will be left with enterprise customers. And if enterprise customers start looking elsewhere for more elegant single-solution management platforms and the few developers that still target the platform set their sights elsewhere, it could spell the a tough time ahead for RIM as we know it.

Topics: BlackBerry, Mobile OS, Mobility, Smartphones, Tablets

About

With a psychology degree under his belt, Ben set off on a four-year sojourn as a professional online poker player, but as the draw of the gambling life began to wane his attentions turned to more wholesome employment.With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a s... Full Bio

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