Things are changing in Waterloo. The summer is drawing to an end and Research In Motion is in the very early stages of the biggest BlackBerry device launch of the brand’s storied history. BlackBerry 7 smartphones — which include new Bold models, Curve models and Torch models — will be sold by more than 225 carriers around the world this year and into 2012. But RIM’s BlackBerry 7 device launch is also significant for another reason, of course: it is the end of an era.
The BlackBerry smartphones launching across the globe right now will be the final batch to feature RIM’s BlackBerry software as we know it today. Late to the party though it may be, RIM’s top management has finally come to realize that its competition as long-since passed it by. Apple owns smartphone profits, Google owns smartphone market share, and RIM has seen its handset business decline in several key regions quarter after quarter. How did the tide turn so quickly? The explanation is beyond simple: RIM, like Nokia and Microsoft, grew complacent and sat idle while younger, hungrier companies revolutionized the smartphone industry. And now these companies must start anew.
Nokia and Microsoft have joined forces in their effort to regain market share and mind share from Apple and Google, leaving RIM to take its journey alone. This is not an unfamiliar position for the company, however. What started as a small VC-funded firm that launched the Inter@ctive Pager in 1998 to combat SkyTel would later go on to help shape the smartphone industry. But technology grows exponentially and RIM did not, so here we sit today.
Analysts and pundits are mixed when it comes to RIM’s chances moving forward. Some believe Google and Apple have built a lead that is insurmountable in the near term, and RIM will continue to stagger until a sale is forced. Others believe RIM’s BlackBerry 7 device roll-out coupled with the vendor’s continued success in numerous international markets will hold the company steady while it prepares the first wave of QNX smartphones that will right RIM’s ship. I once found myself somewhere in between these two camps, but I’m now leaning toward the latter.
BGR Editor-in-chief Jonathan Geller reviewed the BlackBerry Bold 9900 earlier this month, and he found the hardware to be a breath of fresh air while RIM’s stale software left much to be desired. Of course, regardless of where the tide takes him, Geller will always have a soft spot for BlackBerry devices and as such, I really didn’t get to spend much time with our early unit since he wouldn’t let it out of his sight. T-Mobile sent us a Bold 9900 recently, however, and I’ve been using it since the device arrived. My thoughts on the 9900 align closely with Geller’s, so there’s no need to review the phone again. But I did want to cover one aspect of the new Bold because I think it may have bigger implications than many believe.
In a recent feature, I called the BlackBerry PlayBook my favorite tablet and explained how well it is suited for my personal use. Beyond that, however, I also said how much I like the PlayBook hardware. While most seem to prefer the rock hard aluminum case on Apple’s iPad, I really enjoy the soft-touch rubberized plastic RIM used on the PlayBook. The device is very solid, save for the Playskool power button up top, and weight distribution is perfect.
And now, we have the Bold 9900. As someone who handles a ridiculous number of phones — and who apparently may never have children as a result — I feel perfectly comfortable calling the Bold 9900 is one of the most gorgeous pieces of smartphone hardware I have ever seen. Falling short of Apple’s iPhone 4 perhaps only due to the grease-magnet carbon fiber-look plastic inlay at the center of the battery cover, the Bold 9900 is fantastic. Forget about the creaking, plasticky BlackBerry smartphones of old; this is a new chapter in RIM handsets. The smooth face surrounded by a brushed metal bezel is luxurious, the soft-touch rubberized areas on the back feel perfect in the hands, and the keyboard is absolutely unrivaled. But the most important takeaway from RIM’s Bold 9900 is this: RIM has changed.
As simple as it sounds, this is a big confidence booster for me. RIM finds itself where it is today thanks largely to the company’s inability to adapt to a changing market. The company was late with 3G phones because it didn’t want to compromise battery life. Meanwhile, 3G smartphones became commonplace and rendered 2G devices slow and painful to use. RIM was late with touchscreens because rebuilding its operating system for touch input was a daunting task to say the least. Of course while RIM was resisting, touch devices swept the market and now we may never again see a flagship smartphone without a touchscreen.
RIM’s previous high-end phones have been fantastic engineering feats, but the quality of RIM’s hardware was never on par with the likes of HTC or Apple. The Bold 9900 is a completely different story.
When I envision a device with the Bold 9900’s build quality, RIM’s fresh new QNX-based operating system and an the ever-expanding Android application ecosystem available via RIM’s Android app player, I really like RIM’s chances. Add on competitive entry-level QNX phones to pick up where RIM’s new Curves left off, and the tide may very well turn sooner than we think for RIM.