After an unusual amount of buildup, Research in Motion finally revealed its latest Blackberry this week. The Torch, as it has been named, is a touchscreen-keyboard combo that also ships with Blackberry’s new OS 6.
In many ways, it represents a significant move forward for the Blackberry, and in certain areas – social integration, universal search, a webkit-based browser – the Torch on par with the other two players, the iPhone and Android.
But, for good reason, the response from the tech press has thus far been lukewarm. Many reviews have called the phone out for lacking any imagination, not to mention failing to spark it. Complaints have ranged from it being slow, to ugly to just weirdly schizophrenic. As Marc Saltzman put it, it’s like RIM were looking for a home run, but instead hit a double.
This is a big deal. Even if those Nielsen numbers – in which almost 50% of BB users said they intended to switch to Android or an iPhone for their next purchase – aren’t totally accurate, it’s still enough of a sign to cause worry for RIM. The Blackberry is slipping behind. And if that trend continues, that bulletproof email network won’t matter a whit: hedge your bets on one strength for long enough, and another company will eventually match you on that too.
So how does Blackberry save itself from doom?
1. Rethink the Entire UI
The new Blackberry OS 6 reveals a fundamental flaw in RIM’s thinking. Although it’s glossy and slick on the surface, drill down a couple of levels and you’re left with the same clunky, ugly interface that you used on a Blackberry Pearl 3 or 4 years ago.
What that shows is that RIM still think that designing a slick interface is about a flashy sheen and ‘looking nice’. They couldn’t be more wrong. An excellent user interface is about how usability and aesthetics overlap. This is the strength of systems like iOS or Windows 7: they don’t just look nice; they use those looks to work well. That RIM have only made a half-hearted effort to revamp the surface of the OS is a serious mistake and one that has to be fixed.
Is rehauling an entire OS a big project? Yep. But your life depends on it RIM, so suck it up.
2. Step Up The Apps Game
Mobile apps have fundamentally changed the smartphone market. They have gone from niche interest to something with mass appeal.
But the Blackberry App World is neither as extensive nor as well-integrated as the competitor platforms. How apps fit into the broader OS experience is now a crucial part of mass market appeal.
But developing a thriving app ecosystem is no easy feat. RIM would have to:
- Reach out to developers, particularly key companies that draw people in.
- Build a stable, solid, simple infrastructure so that it’s easy to buy apps and easy for app developers to make money. The experience of App World is still sub-par, both for end-users and developers.
- Fix upon on single system and UI configuration – a touch/keyboard combo perhaps – and stick with it. The sheer variety of Blackberries makes it much more difficult to develop for.
3. Ugly Is Not an Option
Like it or not, the aesthetics of hardware design matter. You cannot, in 2010, produce a phone that looks like it came from 2006 and expect it draw the attention and desire of your consumers.
Hire a new design team. Rethink how you approach things. It’s not about ‘prioritizing design over functionality’. It’s about finding a way to make the two of them overlap.
If it’s not sexy, it won’t catch mass market attention. It’s as simple as that.
4. “Can't This Thing Go Any Faster?”
Complaints about speed may, on first glance, sound petulant. Bit if a web page stutters or simple tasks slow down, the experience of using a device suffers. Rather than a question of patience, it’s about what it feels like to use something. To wit: slowness equals frustration.
When your competitors are running 1GHz processors, the way to revitalize your brand is not to release a flagship phone that is significantly slower than those models. A new Android phone or iPhone can surf the web as fast as a laptop from a couple of years ago. That’s incredible. Why, with all of RIM’s engineering wizadry, is the Torch significantly slower than a Droid?
It’s true that battery life is more of a concern in the corporate sector. But selling slow phones doesn’t seem to be the way to solve that dilemma. This is an issue that needs fixing soon.
5. If Security Is Your Strength…
For years now, RIM has touted that they do security better than anyone. This, after all, is at the core of their resistance to the demands of the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
So why not build on that? Why not work with major banks to produce Blackberry-specific banking apps. Why not offer cloud services for which the Blackberry is the terminal? Isn’t security one of the main reasons that the mass market is shy about the cloud?
Put more simply, if you have a core strength that you return to again and again, why not build on that to expand your customer reach rather than simply resting on your laurels?
RIM’s major problem seems to be the assumption that their corporate base will continue to sustain them. But when – and not if – Apple, Google and Microsoft solidify their corporate backbones of their mobile architectures, RIM will have lost that advantage. At that point, it will be about what other services and what kind of hardware RIM can offer. The Torch is clearly not enough. In order to compete, RIM have to make a handset and an infrastructure behind it that your current Droid or iPhone owner would want to switch to. Anything less than that, and the Torch may well be a symbol of the Blackberry’s demise: a solid offering, but one that failed to capture anyone’s imagination.