RIM: Re-Invent or Die

Did you hear? RIM's co-CEO Mike Lazaridis gave a keynote speech this week at the 2010 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, the biggest international stage for showing off new mobile tech. You could be forgiven for overlooking his address. After all, Microsoft was busy reinventing its smart phone strategy with Windows Phone 7 Series, complete with a whole new interface and Zune and Xbox Live integration. And what did the BlackBerry maker do to mark the occasion? Announce free software for small and medium businesses called BlackBerry Server Express. Yipee.

In other words, Microsoft positioned itself in one day as one of the three smart phone superpowers for the next five years, alongside Apple and Google, while RIM looked as if it were content to just tack extra functionality on top of what now looks like a relic of a platform. Although BlackBerry still dominates in terms of U.S. smart phone market share, it's clear that the push e-mail pioneer needs an extreme makeover—not just to stay on top, but to stay in the game.

If you look at the current smart phone landscape in the U.S., RIM commands a very healthy 41.6 percent market share (according to comScore), but other numbers are more telling. In a recent ChangeWave survey, 18 percent of respondents who were planning to buy a smart phone said they would want BlackBerry’s OS, compared to 28 percent for iPhone OS X and 21 percent for Google Android (up from just 6 percent in September). The reason for this slide is that general consumers—not business users—are buying the majority of smart phones now, and they're looking for devices that are as exciting and fun to use as they are powerful.

Over the past few years, BlackBerrys have become as synonymous with smart phones as Kleenex is with tissues, and I am continually impressed with their long battery life, great keyboards, and the way they handle e-mail. In fact, up until this past summer I thought the Curve 8330 was still the best all-around smart phone. Where RIM has fallen behind is in the browser experience, apps, and the overall user interface. So I'm encouraged by the news that a WebKit-based browser is on the way. Surfing the Web on my BlackBerry Tour is so undesktop-like that I now carry a separate iPhone just for that purpose. But rolling out a new piece of software won't be enough.

First, RIM needs to introduce more large-screen devices to provide a bigger canvas for this new browser. And I'm not talking about more Storm sequels. If I want to touch a screen I'll use the iPhone or Nexus One. I also don't want the company to just slap a touch display on a Bold or Curve, which will just make surfing feel claustrophobic. I want to see a slider design with a physical keyboard, such as on the Motorola Droid or Palm Pre, so users don't have to sacrifice screen real estate for typing comfort.

As far as apps go, BlackBerry has fallen way behind the frontrunners, both in terms of quality and quantity. For every great program such as Slacker, there are lots of others that feel like watered-down versions of their Android or iPhone counterparts. RIM's way of playing catch up: promoting so-called Super Apps, which are designed to deliver a more integrated and contextualized experience. For example, during his MWC keynote Lazaridis highlighted how BlackBerry owners could read or even send Twitter updates from their inboxes. RIM also wants developers to leverage its push technology to deliver just-in-time data.

Unfortunately, no one will want to use these apps if they don't look as polished as what you'll find on other platforms. It also doesn't help that RIM simply doesn't offer any compelling games. More important, the user interface of BlackBerry devices now seems positively ancient compared to Windows Phone 7 Series, never mind the iPhone, Android phones (especially those running HTC Sense and Motoblur), and webOS. RIM needs to add some visual excitement to its devices and move away from the bare-bones icons that are easily confused with one another. I bet you 99 percent of first-time BlackBerry owners couldn't tell you the difference between the Application, Applications Center, and Downloads folders on the main menu.

I'm not giving up on RIM, and I know the company has a lot of smart people. I’m also keenly aware of the challenge of innovating while not alienating a huge and loyal fan base. But the question still remains: Can BlackBerry reinvent itself before it's too late?

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.