The state of RIM: Can it survive?

Can RIM survive as Android and iOS continue to dominate the smartphone market? CNET takes a look at RIM's fall, its bet on the PlayBook, and how it can get back on the mend.

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
7 min read

As the smartphone war heats up with Android and iOS duking it out for first place, RIM has slowly fallen out of favor with industry analysts and the general populace. While RIM has certainly been in the news lately because of the PlayBook, we haven't heard much about BlackBerry smartphones for months; the last BlackBerry handset to debut was the BlackBerry Style in October 2010.

The latest ComScore survey has shown that Android has finally overtaken RIM's OS in overall market share. Though RIM still holds on tightly to second place, its score is dropping while iOS' is rising (and let us not forget that ComScore only counts smartphones, not the iPod Touch or the iPad). For a company that was once the reigning king in the smartphone world, this must be humbling news.

We asked RIM to provide us with comments about its future plans, but the company has said it generally doesn't do forward-looking interviews about products.

How did we get here?
Like it or not, the iPhone changed everything. With its debut, smartphones were no longer just devices designed primarily for corporate workers and early adopters (who had been RIM's bedrock). Yes, there were consumer-oriented smartphones like the Nokia N95, the Palm Treo, and the Samsung Blackjack, but those products simply did not have the same mainstream consumer appeal. The iPhone introduced a multitouch interface, an unparalleled music player, and ease of use that the average person could understand. Apple also introduced the concept of an App Store, which brought another paradigm shift to the smartphone developer community; finally, there was an easier way for consumers to discover and download third-party apps.

About a year later, Google took its own early steps into the smartphone world with the first Android smartphone, the T-Mobile G1 (also known as the HTC Dream). It, too, had its own application store in the form of the Android Market. The G1 was a little clunky, but Android, with its open-source philosophy, quickly built new partnerships with other manufacturers, churning out a whole series of Android phones in 2009. They include the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, the HTC Hero, and most importantly, the Motorola Droid, which was the first Android phone to make it big in the mainstream. Meanwhile, Apple did not rest, releasing iPhone successors each year with the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS, improving upon the product both times.

The RIM BlackBerry Storm was disappointing. CNET

RIM must have known it had to do something new to remain relevant. It launched the RIM BlackBerry Storm in late 2008, around the same time as the T-Mobile G1. It was RIM's first touch-screen BlackBerry, and is arguably one of RIM's first forays into the consumer space. There was plenty of hype surrounding the Storm, especially with its unique SurePress technology that resulted in the screen actually "clicking" when you pressed down on it, thus providing the tactile feedback that RIM thought its customers wanted.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be less than successful, and it was plagued by reports of sluggishness and software bugs. RIM tried again the following year with the Storm 2 and a release of its own BlackBerry App World store, but it wasn't enough to overcome the clout of the iPhone and the ever-growing Android Market.

Too little, too late
That seemed to be the overall problem with RIM's attempts these past few years: it was always too little, too late. The company kept doing what it does best with its iconic candy bar phones, releasing the Curve and the Bold with updated specs like GPS, Wi-Fi, 3G, and Bluetooth. These phones have physical keyboards, which has always been RIM's main strength, and are great messaging and e-mail tools. But as mobile entertainment becomes more of a priority, touch screens just get more attention.

The RIM BlackBerry Torch caught our eye with a whole new design. It was also the first handset to debut with BlackBerry OS 6, which introduces a brand-new user interface. Sarah Tew/CNET

RIM tried again in 2010 with the BlackBerry Torch, a design that combined both a touch-screen interface and a QWERTY keyboard. Additionally, it was the first phone to showcase BlackBerry OS 6, RIM's attempt to revamp its operating system to be more touch-screen-friendly. We liked the Torch far more than the Storm, and we applaud the improvements in OS 6--universal search is great, for example--but it just does not compare with the innovative strides of the competition.

Android has the advantage of integration with Google apps and services, while iOS boasts a clean user interface and a wealth of quality third-party applications. Furthermore, the pace of Android is astounding; there seems to be a new Android phone every few weeks. Android is also working on making its platform more secure and corporate-friendly with phones like the Motorola Droid Pro, going after customers where it hurts RIM most. And while BlackBerry might have a loyal developer community, most of the buzz these days is about the Apple App Store and the Android Market, where developers stand to get more recognition.

PlayBook promise
However, RIM threw a surprise at us in late 2010 when it introduced the PlayBook. Unlike the other iPad competitors, the PlayBook looked completely different. The 7-inch size is compellingly portable, and the QNX platform made overwhelmingly positive first impressions with its multitasking prowess and fast processing speeds. It was also the first tablet we'd seen that targeted the business customer with a secure, enterprise-oriented tablet. Even if RIM appears to have lagged behind in the smartphone space, it seems to be taking bold steps in the tablet arena.

RIM's upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook
RIM's upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook RIM

But it seems that RIM might have put almost too much effort into the PlayBook, perhaps forgetting about its smartphones in the process. At CES, Mobile World Congress, and at CTIA this year, all RIM had to offer was the PlayBook. We certainly applaud its efforts in the tablet space, but to not offer any smartphone news at all for almost six months is a little worrying and unlike RIM.

And not all is looking rosy on the PlayBook front, either. RIM recently announced that the PlayBook will be able to run Android apps under an emulation layer. This might sound like good news to consumers because it creates the opportunity for more apps, but it does reveal a certain lack of confidence in RIM's own developer community. If you're a developer, you have less incentive now to develop a native PlayBook app; why not just create an Android one and port it over later? Furthermore, the PlayBook had the advantage of being a unique device in a sea of Android tablets. Why try to be like everything else?

Moving forward
Despite our fears, it's too early to start hammering nails into RIM's coffin. RIM still has an extremely loyal fan base, and its strong commitment to security is why many businesses still prefer BlackBerrys to any other handset. Even though we haven't heard anything about new phones, we have noticed leaks and rumors about new touch-screen BlackBerrys like the Monaco and the Curve Touch. It's not clear if these phones will be much better than the Torch and the two Storms, but we can always hope. It's not too late for RIM to get back on the mend.

A few suggestions
Here are a few ideas I think could be useful for RIM:

  1. Overhaul. RIM needs to seriously re-evaluate the BlackBerry user interface. OS 6 was a step in the right direction, but it still has a relatively bland UI that reeks of its stale predecessor. Take a look at Windows Mobile; Windows Phone 7 is literally nothing like Windows Mobile 6.5. It's fresh, it's new, it's bold, and we rather like it. Of course, we've yet to see Windows Phone 7 take off, but it's good to see Microsoft try. We learned late last year that RIM is planning to port its QNX platform to dual-core smartphones some time in 2012, which is fantastic news, but might be a little too late yet again.

  2. Solve your identity crisis. Either you're a consumer company, or you're not. RIM has long had its stronghold in the corporate world, but it has made some efforts on the consumer side. This is good, but we would like to see much more of a commitment. Is the PlayBook a consumer device? If so, it would be nice if you could get regular email through a native app -- right now it only supports corporate BES email when tethered to a BlackBerry. I would like to see a true consumer smartphone from RIM, something with a strong multimedia offering and a truly fun interface.

  3. Close it off or open it up. If you're going to open up the PlayBook to Android, then why not go whole-hog and open up the BlackBerry to Android, too. You'll get more apps, and you might woo some Android fans over to your side. At least that way there would be some kind of unity with the PlayBook and the BlackBerry phones. Still, I don't think that's necessarily a good idea. It might be better to stick with your own native apps that are specifically designed for your devices. Emulation software seems dodgy to me.

  4. Get a few partners. Find a big-name developer you can partner with to develop apps and services that are unique to the BlackBerry. Maybe get gaming companies like EA involved. Have direct access to valuable services like Amazon.com's Cloud Player. Show off exactly what your phones and tablet can do that the other guys can't.

  5. Amp up the hardware. You noticed how much attention the PlayBook got? That's exactly how RIM's phones should be. Fast, beautiful, sleek, and impressive.

What do you think, readers? How would you improve RIM? What would RIM need to do to knock down Android and iOS? Or do you think RIM needs to do anything at all? Let us know in the comments.