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On Call: RIM, now it's your turn

A new BlackBerry OS is due this year, but whatever it offers it can't come fast enough.

"Reliability" is a word that comes to mind when I think of BlackBerry phones. Research in Motion may not have the flashiest smartphones around, but they've won a well-deserved reputation for being functional and user-friendly e-mail machines. And in the process, the company has garnered a loyal following.

As time develops, however, I'm becoming a little concerned for RIM's future. Though RIM continues to introduce new handsets, the BlackBerry operating system is looking staid, especially as Apple rolls out iOS4 and Google unveils Android 2.2. And even though Microsoft hasn't said much since the company unveiled Windows Phone 7 in February, it's clear that the much-needed update is a complete overhaul of Windows Mobile. To keep up, RIM needs to do something big to give its interface a fresh look.

The good news is that we know that the company will be delivering BlackBerry OS 6 in the third quarter of this year. Details are slim beyond a promotional video, but whatever the new OS offers it can't come fast enough. So while we wait, here's what I'm hoping to see from OS 6.

BlackBerry devices may excel at e-mail, but their Web browsers aren't so hot when compared with the iPhone or most Android devices. Sure, the browser gets the job done, and RIM has taken steps to make it faster, but we're still looking for smoother navigation and options like tabbed browsing and Flash support across all handsets. Fortunately, RIM's acquisition of Torch Mobile last year has given us hope that a WebKit-based browser is on the way.

BlackBerry hasn't neglected multimedia completely in recent devices, but the pace of development has been slow. It's good to see that the aforementioned video spends a lot of time showing a new music player. It certainly looks nice, but I wonder how it will set itself apart from its Android and iPhone counterparts. In addition to being slick and functional I'm hoping that it offers unique features that its rivals lack. Video also is a concern; we love the vibrant displays on the Bold family even if the video player interface is pretty generic.

Touch screen
From what I can infer from the video, and from what BlackBerry reviewer Bonnie Cha has told me, OS 6 will focus on a touch interface. Given RIM's checkered past with touch screens--the Storm 2 was fine, but the original Storm was a disappointment--that seems like a risky move. Hopefully, RIM will further improve the touch interface in OS 6 to make it even more accurate and fluid. And though I think that it's unlikely, I would encourage RIM not to adopt a handset lineup that uses only touch screens. Too many people (including me) like a physical keyboard.

This is a quick suggestion, but it's absolutely essential for customers. Please, RIM, make the OS compatible on as many devices as possible when it's available. We aren't going to be happy if we have to upgrade to new phones just to get the enhancement.

Make it more fun
As I said in my recent discussion with Bonnie Cha about the battle between iOS and Android, I'd never implore one smartphone operating system to copy another. RIM has always been a business-centric device and I think it can carve a future by keeping that focus. It should continue to concentrate on its strengths of e-mail delivery and productivity applications, but it can be a little more fun without trying too hard to be "cool." The improvements I've mentioned will play a big part, but I'd also like to see a revamped menu interface with animations, widgets and pop-up menus, to name a few. There's nothing wrong with being loved by IT departments and road warriors, but RIM can stand to innovate and broaden its appeal beyond workaholics.

How do you think RIM should improve the BlackBerry OS?