BlackBerry's big dilemma: How much to break from the past?

Heading into RIM's announcement of BlackBerry 6 and the new BlackBerry hardware, the big question is how much RIM will break from the past or accommodate it.

On Tuesday, BlackBerry will show off its next generation operating system and hardware. All of the talk will be centered on what's new -- a multitouch UI and upgraded Web browser in BlackBerry 6, and the new BlackBerry Torch with a slide-down keyboard.

But, the underlying issue to watch as Research in Motion shows the world why it should still buy BlackBerry smartphones instead of Android devices or iPhones is how much RIM breaks with the past or accommodates it. That's the question that will determine whether RIM will keep its leadership position in the North American smartphone market and continue its growth abroad.

Recently, BlackBerry has been losing to iPhone and Android on both customer satisfaction as well as prospective buyers. RIM needs to counteract the Android and iPhone momentum with a touchscreen device that is just as easy to use and just as savvy with the Web, multimedia, and third-party apps, so that it can stop losing tech-savvy customers to  Apple and Google.

However, the company also has to please its loyal customer base, which is mostly made up of corporate smartphone customers who primarily use their devices for email, calendar, and business documents. If you polled most those people, they'd tell you that they loathe on-screen keyboards and that most of the apps on the iPhone are frivolous.

So there's the difficult balancing act for BlackBerry. It needs a device that is new and revolutionary enough to start generating some badly-needed buzz to counteract iPhone and Android. But, if the company goes too far away from its current platform, then it could whither its enterprise base. That's why RIM is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, with a new device that features both a touchscreen and a slide-down keyboard, the BlackBerry Torch.

But, will that be enough to attract customers drawn to larger touchscreens on iPhone and Android? I have my doubts about that, unless RIM surprises us with an unexpected innovation. However, it might be enough to stop an exodus of many BlackBerry customers to iPhone and Android in the years ahead, and with the smartphone market expected to grow at a breakneck pace, that would still leave plenty of room for BlackBerry in the market.

With that in mind, here are my big questions leading into RIM's announcement today:

Questions to watch

  1. Will BlackBerry 6 only be available on touchscreen devices like the Torch (with keyboard) and the Storm (without keyboard)? [That would be radical.]
  2. If BlackBerry 6 does come to legacy devices, what innovations are left once you remove multitouch? Just the new Web browser and home screen? Will that be enough to push the platform forward?
  3. Will RIM eliminate popular device brands, such as the Pearl and Curve, in favor of a new product line with only slide-down keyboard devices? [Seems doubtful that Curve would eliminated, but Pearl may be at the end of its road.]
  4. If traditional qwerty devices aren't eliminated right away, will they be phased out?
  5. Can RIM successfully nurse along its business loyalists with a few new helpful features, while simultaneously giving the platform a big push forward to attract more tech-savvy buyers?