This week Research In Motion's (RIMM) new CEO, Thorsten Heins, unveiled the BlackBerry 10 operating system during the company's World Conference in Orlando, Fla.
According to the video presentation released, the new BlackBerry, expected to be on sale later in the year, has a touch screen, prompting the obvious question: How will longtime BlackBerry fans react to the phone's lack of a more traditional physical keyboard?
Previous attempts made by RIM with the touchscreen BlackBerry Storm received mixed reviews from critics and users. The phone, which was incorporating the company's SurePress technology, expected to reproduce haptic feedback and allow for quick navigation and precise typing, never took off in sales. For most users, Blackberry is just synonymous to typing on a small-but-for-real qwerty keyboard. Unfortunately, physical keyboard lovers represent a decreasing share of the smartphone market, although they may constitute a large majority of BlackBerry users.
Surrendering to touchscreen may be seen as RIM's final acknowledgement of its defeat, as most smartphones, today, incorporate this technology, or at least as "a recognition that the future is without a keyboard," as Nigel Hughes noted in a Bloomberg article related to the presentation.
To add further confusion to this (belated) strategic move, however, in the same article Michael Clewley, director of handheld software product management at RIM, is reported as reassuring BlackBerry World attendees that the company will eventually offer slide-out keyboards, as well as traditional keypads, in some of its future products.
The new BlackBerry device, that will most probably be launched at a time when the new iPhone 5 and several Windows 8 operated handsets will also be available, is key to the company's turnaround.
While it is very hard to judge a smartphone, that has also been described by management as a generic prototype and not the finished product, from its first images, critics have already started addressing the lack-of-real-keyboard concerns (from BuzzFeed):
The New BlackBerry Has The World's Slowest Keyboard
Typing out the sentence "I need to leave early" takes 15 agonizing seconds on the new BlackBerry's digital keyboard in this promo video. It took us seven on current BlackBerry with a real keyboard. Or 10.5 seconds on a Motorola Droid 4, 7.5 seconds on a Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone and 6.5 seconds on an iPhone. This is from the company that owned typing on a phone.There isn't a single physical button on the front of the new BlackBerry. The face of the phone perhaps best loved for its fantastic keyboards is completely flat, utterly barren. In its place, RIM has invented the world's slowest touch keyboard.
In all honesty, we haven't been able to match BuzzFeed records on our touchphones, so we wouldn't grant RIM the "slowest keyboard award" yet. The new keypad is also supposed to "learn" how users type and adapt the keys to the consumer's behavior, whatever this means, reducing the number of potentially misspelled words.
For a more balanced view of the new device, here is some positive commentary addressing the same "keyboard issue":
True BlackBerry loyalists will bemoan RIM's decision to pursue touchscreen keyboards, but the keyboard previewed on a BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha device, looks promising. It uses modeling algorithms to learn where you press on the display, so it adapts to your typing style. Aesthetically, the keyboard looks like a traditional BlackBerry keyboard with fretted rows of keys. The frets aren't just cosmetic appendages, though. As you type, BlackBerry 10 predicts words you are going to type and displays them on the frets. You can swipe them up into your message for fast one handed typing. You can also swipe to reveal symbols or erase words.
It's also clear that RIM's acquisition of The Astonishing Tribe [TAT] was a great move. The Cascades UI Engine will encourage a unified application look on BlackBerry 10 while still offering flexibility.
The new BlackBerry 10 platform will represent, for Rim, much more than just a belated conversion to touchscreens.
In the last few years, BlackBerry has engaged in several acquisitions, including QNX and the above mentioned TAT, all meant to give the company the much needed competences to address Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android dominance in smartphones.
The utilization of TAT Cascades in nearly all areas of the OS might be the most interesting aspect, for end users, of the operating system. According to this 2011 blog post by Andreas Constantinou, who served on TAT's advisory board in 2008/2009, there are several improvements that TAT could have made possible for Blackberry, although the author reminds that integrating creativity, through an acquisition, into a large company like RIMM represented a major risk:
TAT's acquisition is far more encompassing than many would have thought - it puts RIM a leap ahead of the pack in the league of top-10 handset manufacturers in six ways:
1. Match the iPhone
With the Cascades technology, RIM can now match and even exceed the sophistication of the iPhone UI (see this and this video demos). Long term this means RIM has a chance to contain the exodues of enterprise customers opting for replacing their RIM with iPhones due to the outdated UI and usability on the Blackberry OS 6.
2. Rapid variant management
TAT's Cascades is a departure from how OEMs build handsets today, by allowing the UI to be designed in terms of screens and not applications.
3. Consumer and enterprise personas
With TAT, RIM buys the ability to have enterprise AND consumer UI personas ship in the same phone - not only that, but in a way that can be easily switched by the user at the flick of a button. Switching between enterprise and consumer personas is also much cheaper to do at the UI level rather than the bare metal level with what's called 'mobile virtualization'.
4. Enterprise UI customization
Besides the runtime technology, TAT develops Motion Lab, a tool that a designer can use to define UI screens and UI flows through a drag-n-drop environment. For RIM, this means that enterprises can customize the phone's navigation to focus on the few key applications that are used most of the time. It also offers RIM a level of enterprise customization beyond what other OEMs can achieve out of the box.
5. UI personalities
With the erosion of the market of downloadable ringtones and wallpapers, the industry has turned to apps as the next premium content market. Yet, there are still new revenue opportunities in downloadable content. In Japan, DoCoMo has led the market of downloadable UIs in the form of "standby screens" (programmable home screens), and which Acrodea has extended to the dialer and menu apps. This has created a small market of downloadable UIs for both DoCoMo and KDDI.
With TAT, RIM can extend that market to the world, and across more embedded applications - creating what can be called the market of downloadable UI personalities. Whether RIM can turn this capability into a new 'market' is questionable, but it certainly presents a unique point of differentiation and an opportunity for a new revenue stream for RIM.
6. Connected experiences
With the acquisition of Dash, a 2-way car navigation company, RIM has its sights set beyond phones and tablets into the automotive segment. To deliver a consistent UI across these varied form factors a new OS (QNX) is far from adequate. It needs a portable UI technology that allows RIM to reuse its UI assets with minimum maintenance overhead across different form factors, from phones to cars. TAT's Cascades is exactly this technology and as TAT has shown, it can be extended to connected screens in the living room, in the street, in the car, and in the hands.
Can RIM execute?
All in all, TAT can deliver Apple-class user experience that offers RIM a strategic advantage compared to OEMs leveraging 3rd party Windows Phone and Android platforms. This all sounds great on paper of course, but it's all a question of execution.
Can RIM's corporate monoculture adapt to the creative minds of TAT? Will the TATers get the mandate and budgets to innovate deep into RIM's product lines? How long will RIM take to integrate the TAT technology on top of the QNX platform and where will the competition be at that point?
Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.
TAT has always been at the forefront of new technologies, as shown by their participation in the 2009 Fuse concept phone.
Fuse was a collaboration between Synaptics (NASDAQ:SYNA), Texas Instruments (NASDAQ:TXN), Immersion (NASDAQ:IMMR), TheAlloy and The Astonishing Tribe meant to show that a squeezable smartphone that included multi-touch capacitive sensing, haptic feedback, 3-D graphics, and force, grip, and proximity sensing was possible. While, probably on purpose, a bit extreme in some of its capabilities (like 2D navigation from the back of the phone), the Fuse was an interesting way for TAT to prove its creativity:
"Realizing design ideas that push the limits of technology like the Fuse UI does is one of our passions," says Charlotta Falvin, chief executive officer of The Astonishing Tribe.
Back to RIM' s BlackBerry World conference, it looks like analysts haven't really been impressed, so far, by the company's attempt to regain market leadership through the new OS, as resumed by Barron's:
Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer M. Fritzsche reiterated her Market Perform rating on the stock, as she saw some glimmers of hope for the company but noted competition remains fierce.
Stern, Agee & Leach analyst Shaw Wu also reiterated a Neutral rating on RIMM, seconding concerns about competition, as well as a difficult transition period ahead with the BB10′s introduction.
BMO Capital Markets analyst Tim Long also has a Market Perform rating on the stock, as he hasn't seen any surprises out of the conference.
Wedge Partners analyst Brian Blair writes that the new BB10 OS actually "looks decent," but it's too little too late for RIMM.
Right now, the company appears, like its BB10 prototype, a work-in-progress: not enough to give investors a compelling reason to go on a buy spree.
With just an 8.8% (and declining) share of the worldwide smartphone market, RIM's new CEO seems to have come to the conclusion that what his company needs is to buy more time. And by announcing that RIM won't be upgrading any BlackBerry 7 phone to the new operating system, he might have unintentionally followed the steps of Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) CEO, without the need of a leaked "burning platform" memo. Will customers keep supporting RIM buying a self-declared obsolete OS in the next few months?
Disclosure: I am long IMMR.