BlackBerry 10 needs more than Flow for RIM to swim

Research in Motion needs compelling devices, excited consumers and strong developer commitment if the company has any chance at all in chasing a saturated mobile operating system market dominated by Apple, Google and even Microsoft.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

RIM's new BlackBerry 10 user interface, shown above, is refeshingly different from that iOS and Android, but that alone will not determine the future of the platform and the sustainability of the company.

While the attention of majority of the ADD-addled technology press was hyperfocused on Apple's iOS 6 "Map Flap" last week, Research in Motion held its BlackBerry Jam Americas developer conference, where it demonstrated a near feature-complete version of its BlackBerry 10 operating system, which is due to ship on new RIM handsets in early 2013.

And surprisingly, the company lost less money in the last quarter than Wall Street analysts thought it would, even though financially the company is still a slow moving train wreck.

Who? What? Where? RIM? BlackBerry? Yeah.

While I wasn't physically present at the conference, I had some time to review a number of the keynotes and presentations, as well as read some of the analysis being done by folks who have had posession of developer devices and have seen the latest OS builds up close.

The new "Flow" UI, which will premiere on the new BlackBerry 10 devices next year is heavily focused on multitasking as well as single-inbox social media and messaging integration, quick insight into personal information management with a feature known as "Peek", and the introduction of a user interface element known as "Cascades" which is written in the Open Source Qt development framework that was acquired from NOKIA by Digia last month.

It's different than what we have seen on both iOS and Android, which are both single application and single-tasking focused, but not substantially different than what we saw with webOS on the Palm Pre smartphones and the HP TouchPad.

In fact, I would say that the "Cascades" is a direct copy of a similar user interface element previously seen in webOS.

I'd also go as far to say that their "Peek" feature, while implemented in a different fashion, is not that different conceptually from the Live Tiles that Microsoft uses in Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT to present a summary of critical application data on the Start Screen.

So yes, BlackBerry 10 is a bit different than the platforms that are in dominant use, and it also borrows some concepts from less successful platforms. The big question is will consumers and business customers buy the new devices, and will developers line up to write apps for the platform?

To try to answer this question, we should start with the devices. At the conference, all we saw were updated versions of the developer alpha handsets, which are not supposed to represent actual products that are being released next year.

But the folks over at Boy Genius Report last week managed to get a hold of a confidential RIM video originally published at CrackBerry.com, presumably produced for internal training purposes or for satisfying carrier partners, investors and shareholders.

The video describes the go to market strategy for the new BlackBerry 10 phones and the theme of an upcoming advertising campaign, which features two unnamed devices that are showcased in it.

One of which resembles the rectangular developer alpha device that was shown at BlackBerry Jam, and the other resembles a traditional BlackBerry Bold handset with a physical keyboard. Both of which have the sex appeal and industrial design of an early 1990s Volvo 700 Series Sedan, assuming they are real devices and not just mockups.

I can just see the campaign advertisements for these devices now: BlackBerry. We're boxy, but good.

I'm going to withold final judgment on the new devices until I see final product. But if they are anything like the PlayBook in terms of design aesthetics, and we don't see some very compelling product differentiation in terms of the hardware itself from the rest of the competition, the company is in really big trouble. 

From the perspective of the average consumer, BlackBerry just isn't cool anymore. If they still own a BlackBerry and their contracts expire soon, they'll almost certainly move on to iPhones and Androids.

Let's get to apps. The developer platform for BlackBerry 10 has been out for a year and a half, in the form of the QNX OS that runs on the company's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which has shipped just approximately 1.74 million devices since its launch in March of 2011, many of which were sold at fire sale prices after a poor performance in the retail channel.

The PlayBook received an OS 2.0 update in February of 2012, which in addition to the heavily awaited native email, calendaring and PIM features that were absent from the device's initial release, also includes a Dalvik Virtual Machine that enables the tablet to run slightly modified versions of most Android applications.

PlayBook developers, as of version 2.0, have had the ability to use a number of APIs and toolsets to write applications for the tablet, which includes Adobe AIR, native C++, HTML5/WebWorks and also Android 2.x.

In addition to adding the Qt-based "Cascasdes" useable by the aformentioned APIs already available on the PlayBook, BlackBerry 10 adds support for true Java apps, presumably to bring old-school J2ME BlackBerry OS 5, 6 and 7 developers seeking the greener pastrures of Android and iOS back into the fold.

As of today, the majority of applications in the PlayBook's BlackBerry App World are ported Android 2.x apps, and very few are native C++ or WebWorks. 

Still, compared to Google Play and even Amazon's own Appstore for Android, the selection of Android applications on the PlayBook BlackBerry App World pales in comparison to those other two, let alone the totalnumber of apps for PlayBook compared to what exists in total on Microsoft's own Windows Phone store.

Developers have had plenty of time to embrace the QNX platform that RIM is passing off as BlackBerry 10. Beyond a handful of die-hards and Android developers looking to find another alternative outlet for their apps, PlayBook OS 2.0 in terms of its ability to generate interest from the developer community has been a bust.

And despite some of the new UI improvements in BlackBerry 10, I'm not seeing a whole lot of incentive for that trend to change. The interest just plain isn't there.

Promising $10,000 in income to one-man shops for a BlackBerry 10 application port is a joke, when the same time and effort to produce a similar iOS and Android app could easily be several times that in labor costs alone. And those are with tools that are already familiar to them, on platforms with far less risks to be taken for that relative time investment.

Sure, there are definitive things that BlackBerry brings to the table from a techie perspective, such as world-class real-time multitasking and probably the best and most standards-compliant webkit-based mobile web browser in the industry.

But the average Joe looking to buy a smartphone or a tablet doesn't care about that kind of stuff. Had they, the PlayBook would have sold far more units in the channel than it did. What they want is the popular apps and access to the very same services that everyone else enjoys on their smartphones.

And please don't tell me an official FaceBook or Twitter client for BlackBerry 10 is enough. It isn't.

From the enterprise perspective, Windows Phone is starting to look very attractive because Microsoft owns the dominant underlying messaging and application server platforms that enterprises use, and there is very little BlackBerry 10 is going to offer on the secure messaging side that Microsoft won't with Windows Phone 8.

And unlike RIM, Microsoft has tons of money and other incentives to throw at developers when they need essential apps ported, particularly those from the very same enterprise partners that RIM is also courting to build enterprise BlackBerry 10 apps. They don't joke around.

So yes, BlackBerry 10 has a new look and some new features. But from where I'm sitting at this very moment, it's PlayBook 3.0.

Will BlackBerry 10 succeed where PlayBook failed? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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