BlackBerry 10, webOS and the platform predicament

BlackBerry 10, webOS and the platform predicament

During the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January 2009, a struggling smartphone company that had once helped shape the mobile industry unveiled its next-generation platform. It was gorgeous. The design was unique and appealing, the gesture-based controls were smart and intuitive, and the company’s new smartphone operating system offered a breath of fresh air in an industry dominated by just two major players, Apple and Google.

On August 18th, 2011, less than three years after this promising new platform was unveiled, it was effectively laid to rest.

During the annual BlackBerry World conference on Tuesday, a struggling smartphone company that had once helped shape the mobile industry unveiled its next-generation platform. It was gorgeous. The design was unique and appealing, the gesture-based controls were smart and intuitive, and the company’s new smartphone operating system offered a breath of fresh air in an industry dominated by just two major players, Apple and Google.

Yes, history is repeating itself.

There are too many comparisons between Research In Motion today and Palm in late 2008 and early 2009 to count. Ignoring the similarities between Palm and HP’s webOS platform and BlackBerry 10 is ignoring the obvious: a sleek UI that deviates from industry leaders and innovates in several key areas, sky-high ambitions, aspirations of pushing the platform beyond smartphones and onto various other products, and a seemingly impossible lead to overcome. RIM is in a much better place than Palm was at that time, of course, with a much larger user base, better performance and more resources at its disposal. Despite these advantages, however, both of these stories may end up sharing the same final chapter if RIM can’t find a way to tip the scales in its favor.

New chief executive Thorsten Heins took the stage on Tuesday and showed the world an operating system that looks absolutely nothing like BlackBerry 7. This is a very good thing. Based on RIM’s PlayBook OS, BlackBerry 10 appears to have the fit and finish of a modern mobile platform at this early stage. The UI is a complete overhaul compared to RIM’s current smartphone OS, and while Heins’s preview was very brief, we saw a number of exciting new features unveiled.

RIM showed us an interesting take on predictive text input that places words above various keys lying in the path of letters the user might type. A simple flick gesture will then complete the word. This solution is more elegant and logical than existing options that place a list of word recommendations across the top of the virtual keypad, and it is nice to see RIM innovating in a space it led for so long.

The camera software in BlackBerry 10 is fascinating as well. RIM’s next-generation smartphones will capture a series of photographs in the background as the user snaps an image. This will allow users to cycle regions of the image forward or backward in time to correct closed eyes or alter other aspects of a photo.

The problem, however, is that features like these won’t sell phones, regardless of how innovative and exciting they might be.

These features are a small piece of a massive puzzle that must be arranged in just the right order to allow a third player to emerge and succeed in today’s market. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have tremendous momentum, proven ecosystems and developer support, widespread carrier support and massive marketing budgets helping to sustain their success.

To say RIM has its work cut out for it is an understatement of monumental proportions. Plainly put, right now is likely the worst time in smartphone history to launch a new platform.

Apple and Google lead in the smartphone platform race by a staggering margin, and Nokia and Microsoft have a head start in terms of using innovation, a spectacular product and boatloads of cash in attempt to establish a successful third platform. And in terms of smartphone profits, that’s a two-horse race as well right now.

At some point in the coming years, other platforms will undoubtedly emerge and find success in the smartphone space. The odds are not in a contender’s favor today, however, as Apple and Google are both at the top of their game. To make matters somehow even worse for RIM, its first BlackBerry 10 smartphone will likely launch in the very same month as Apple’s next-generation iPhone, which BGR expects to feature a complete redesign when it is released this fall.

BlackBerry 10 is shaping up to be an impressive platform, and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. It looks elegant, well thought-out and very powerful — just like webOS. Whether or not RIM can avoid a similar fate for its mobile platform remains to be seen, but unfortunately, we haven’t been shown anything compelling or significantly differentiated thus far that suggests this will be the case. For RIM’s sake, and for the sake of smartphone users everywhere who are hungry for a viable new platform, let’s hope that changes.

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