Executives of Research in Motion probably won’t get much sleep tonight.
Wednesday is the big day they unveil the result of a massive, long-awaited attempt to regain lost ground in the smartphone wars against Apple, Android and Samsung, with the release of BlackBerry 10. After previous delays this will be a sprawling launch that takes place simultaneously across six cities including New York, London and Dubai.
We’ll be live blogging from the main launch event in New York, and getting further details from RIM executives like RIM’s chief marketing officer Frank Boulben.
Boulben has already been flying to dozens of countries in the last five months to spread the message of BlackBerry 10, reporting that around 150 carriers will support RIM’s newest phones. “End users have got three main characteristics,” he said when he gave us a demo of the new software platform at CES. “They are people who are achievers, doers and action oriented. They are hyper connected, with multiple email accounts. They text, IM, do social messaging, and multitask. They are constantly in and out.”
And that is what BlackBerry 10 aims to cater to, through seamless functionality like BlackBerry Flow, a nifty predictive keyboard, a ‘Hub’ where all notifications from email to Twitter to Facebook are gathered in one place, and through intuitive new gestures. The image above is a screenshot for the new interface, one of the few that RIM has been willing to release ahead of tomorrow’s launch.
It’s still a lot of information to have already put out. This is because while Apple can afford to keep the lid on every little detail about its forthcoming products, letting hype build up like a pressure cooker, Research in Motion is now in a position where it has to create that momentum itself. The company’s global market share in terms of device sales have fallen dramatically in the last few years, down to 2.9% in the third quarter of 2011, according to Gartner, leaving a small but loyal fan base.
It faces further challenges this year: smartphone markets in the West that are nearly saturated, cheaper smartphone alternatives like Huawei targeting the faster-growing emerging markets, a potentially cheaper iPhone from Apple, and Samsung’s Galaxy S4 which Morgan Stanley analysts expect to be a “blockbuster” phone.
RIM’s big problem till now: there are fewer BlackBerry “addicts” because of the BYOD (bring your own device) phenomenon, which has seen more company staffers defy their IT departments to use their own iPhones or Android phones to check company email. Whereas RIM could once rely on selling BlackBerrys in bulk to enterprise customers and the chief information officers of companies, it now increasingly has to appeal to individual consumers directly.
This means integral new features like BlackBerry 10′s ‘Hub’ will need to not only include notifications from Twitter and Facebook, but other popular apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat. When Boulben speaks of the “hyper-connected,” he’s referring not just to busy executives but increasingly, anyone who knows how to use a smartphone.
RIM fortunately has some decent foundations on which to make its launch:
- It has already announced that the new BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10 will be able to manage iOS and Android devices too – which should appeal to CIOs.
- It has announced partnerships with Disney, Sony, Universal and Warner Brothers for its BlackBerry 10 storefront. One reason so many former BlackBerry users switched to iPhones is because they wanted a greater array of apps and media.
- It is launching with more than 70,000 apps available to download
- It will launch two devices: a full touch screen smartphone, and a phone with a physical keyboard, a crucial source of differentiation for BlackBerry which has also helped it retain its loyal user base.
“We are staying true to the BlackBerry DNA and doing it better than any other platform,” Boulben said, “Everything that relates to communication, typing, instant messaging and security.”
Will BlackBerry 10 help RIM avoid the fate of an even smaller market share and eventual buyout? To answer that question, we still need to find out how much the first two BlackBerry 10 phones, rumored to be called Z10 and X10, will cost, and when they’ll be available. The touchscreen Z10 will reportedly be the first to launch, hitting shelves in February, according to CNET.
Bottom line, RIM will need to get the right price point, hardware form factor (including battery life) and availability that can appeal beyond its traditional “CrackBerrys” to mainstream consumers. It needs converts. If the BlackBerry 10 can prove to be as innovative and appealing as Boulben professes, RIM certainly has a chance.