BlackBerry fragmentation is the spectre that haunts RIM

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.

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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

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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21 comments
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  • Brilliant analysis

    Brilliant analysis. Next time though, do some research. RIM has said they will have a high-end set of phones. A mid-range set of phones and a lower-end set of phones.
    Instead of trying to figure it out, why not just go to them for answers first?
    Susan Antony
    • freelance engineer

      very costly to manufacture so many styles of handsets Susan yikes
      Dave Hargraves
  • BES

    BES will allow the older BB devices and the newer ones to be controlled by the some console. Initially there will have to be two servers run concurrently but I would guess that they can be virtual servers so that is no big deal.
    The software will also allow non-RIM products to be managed, I think by a third server which also can be a virtual server.
    RIM is not going to create a system that leaves its customers high and dry. That would be bad business.
    Susan Antony
    • freelance engineer

      does that include when their server crashed for days a year and a half ago?
      Dave Hargraves
      • Nothing is 100%

        RIM is still operating at four 9's. Please list any cloud service (and the NOC is in the cloud) that is doing that consistently? In over 10 years you can count RIM outages with both hands stills. Thats pretty impressive and when it occurs is only that much more visible.
        MobileAdmin
        • RIM is still operating at four 9's.

          Four 9s is nothing. My home PC network can manage four 9s. Call us back when you can manage six 9s.
          ldo17
  • Where's the article on WP fragmentation?

    There is one version reportedly only for Nokia, and one for the OEMs. Then there's the old WM version (WP 7.1, 7.5, which are all called Mangoo, and WP 7.8) and the new and improved, but incompatible WP 8. so we're talking about 5 possible versions of WP by January 2013.
    Troll Hunter J
    • @Troll Hunter J

      It's a fair question and certainly something I've been thinking about. I guess the initial versions of Windows Phone haven't had much of an enterprise (or otherwise) presence and as such are less likely to be continually updated in the future. Ultimately becoming obsolete. Windows Phone 8's upgrade path on the other hand is something I'll be interested to see.

      Considering the implications of fragmentation at the point of WP 7.1 would seem futile if I were a developer, considering the small number of users. A bit like worrying about the number of devices running Cupcake on Android. Like it or lump it the older models get left behind eventually. Fragmentation is an issue for many platforms, but it's a continually evolving one.
      Ben Woods
      • Fragmentation

        There are two sides to fragmentation:

        Hardware related to OS updates
        OS related to App developement

        ALL platforms suffer from both of these.

        App development will shake out as HTML 5 matures and most Apps move to being web based so OS platform doesn't matter.
        MobileAdmin
  • BB

    I like BB phones for my business, and have been using them exclusively for three years, the Tour, 9650, and now the 9930. In that time the only thing they' have lacked in my use is a decent Internet experience. I do a lot of research and I need a good browser, so consequently I have to carry a laptop with me. Wish I would use only the phone for everything.
    ITOdeed
    • BB10

      surprised that the 9930 hasn't solved your internet needs, BB10 will provide superior internet capabilities
      HabsSuck
      • freelance engineer

        im not surprised whatsoever HabsS. i was at their BB show in Orlando and all i saw was what was already out there ):
        Dave Hargraves
    • freelance engineer

      hey BB i have handset now that is not data but i use my ipod when wifi is in place lots of free wifi vendors are popping up everwhere. my friend has a BB handse that takes for ever,due to its browser, and i seem to get everywhere on the internet without hesitation with my ipod makes me happy and its free internet. (:
      Dave Hargraves
    • Playbook fills that need

      A Playbook paired with a 9930 is a spectacular combo. BlackBerry Bridge gives you free internet on the Playbook via your BlackBerry phone.
      John Hanks
      • Tethering

        Until your carrier rumbles you, and stiff you with a tethering charge.
        neil.postlethwaite
  • freelance engineer

    lol looks like you copied the iphone Rim,are you sure u did not paint a iphone black in that photogragh?? i cant believe Rim is still not ready to take any means to solve their demise. oh well they would sooner copy others, which in turn will create big time competition or get sued. well when ever your ready to acquire some technology whereas competition would not be a issue whatsoever due to no reverse engneering,or design copying. have a nice day Freelance Eng.(designer of smartpnone tech) thankyou for posting this all i am interested in is saving jobs (:
    Dave Hargraves
  • Sadly, RIM will not be saved by BB10 or the phones

    For BB10 to succeed (or even allow RIMM to tread water) it has to bring some compelling new feature or functionality that distinguishes it. A "me-too" OS will prolong the agony without affecting the outcome.

    All indications are that RIM is struggling to get a serviceable product out the door. Two delays adding up to a year is not refinement. It's a sign of serious problems. So I wouldn't expect BB10, when it is released, to achieve anything more than rough parity with iOS and Android, which will not be enough.
    printing724
  • Corporate Is No Longer Enough

    The consumer market is where the growth is. If RIM gives up on that, then it gives up on being in business altogether.
    ldo17
  • RIM & Developers

    I started out using RIM's BlackBerry handsets when they introduced OS 5.0 and became obsessed with putting together apps for their products. Over the last few years though the smartphones are marketed and about the time Joe User can afford one it's basically treated as EOL and the users abandoned. I'm learning the Android system and saving for an Android based handset as well for the reasons described above. I live on an income that no longer allows the "tech" allowance I used to give myself and therefore cannot spend my de-valued dollars that I no longer have on Corporations and their products which are abandoned with about the same speed as the effort expended to market them to stay ahead of the competition.
    timinftl
  • Fragmentation already exists, junking entire HW line is a worse worry

    There already exists massive fragmentation from Curve 8520's still shipping with Blackberry OS 4 on them is some cases, through to BB7 on current devices.

    RIM are comitting the same mistake as Microsoft, in junking the entire current line of hardware for the new 10 OS. New phone needed, a break/opportunity to cut the ties to RIM and go elsewhere - if you need secure corporate, just add the Good Mobile messaging App....
    neil.postlethwaite