The BlackBerry 9800, OS 6, and RIM’s Future [Editorial]

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Tomorrow AT&T and RIM are expected to unveil the BlackBerry 9800, their first OS 6 smartphone. This is the biggest single leap BlackBerry’s software has made, and its reception will define how well RIM competes over the next year and beyond. The old giant, Nokia, still carries a lot of weight (though it’s slowing down), while Microsoft has wiped the slate clean and is kicking off Windows Phone 7 soon with some fresh ideas. Palm, the only other manufacturer to have been in the game as long as RIM, attempted a similar rebirth which ultimately failed, but remains in the picture thanks to HP’s acquisition.

iPhone caught a lot of attention right off the bat with a good-looking experience, and has over time plugged the obvious gaps like cut and paste and multitasking in order to count itself among the big-boy smartphone OSes. Meanwhile, Android flung open the doors and welcomed every interested manufacturer, resulting in an ever-growing army of phones with a plethora of form factors with a variety of user interface tweaks, all with a common application platform.

This leaves RIM still commanding a healthy chunk of the smartphone market, thanks in no small part to their pioneering of the category and the surprising new interest from everyday consumers outside of the boardroom. BlackBerry is certainly fully-matured, but its age is showing, and those loyal to the brand are looking to OS 6 to be the thing that rebuilds its momentum, especially in light of younger, more agile platforms. The installed base is too significant for RIM to consider a full-blown reinvention (a maneuver unproven by Windows Mobile, and shown to be a tragic failure by webOS), but the growing demand for smooth graphics and a rich application market is forcing the BlackBerry operating system to grow.

So, will the BlackBerry 9800 and OS 6 deliver? Here’s what we’ll probably end up seeing from tomorrow’s announcement in New York, what we’d like to see, and what’s likely coming down the pipe.

What we’ll end up seeing

We can’t forget that RIM is a largely iterative company – they aren’t going to reinvent e-mail again. Even though OS 6 is indeed the biggest update BlackBerry has ever had, it is still halfway between something old and something new. RIM has already published some videos showing us what’s going on with BlackBerry 6, so let’s let them do the talking.

Since going public with OS 6, RIM has been adamant that they want to make something that’s still familiar to die-hard users, and as you can see, this is mostly achieved. Some of the hallmark features that have been covered both officially and unofficially include universal search, categorized icons accessible through swipe gestures, multitouch zooming, and a notification bar with quick access to new messages, upcoming meetings, and latest calls. New preloaded apps will help users stay tuned with social networks and RSS feeds, as well as podcast subscriptions. The new Webkit browser promises to be a significant upgrade to what exists on BlackBerry currently, but will have to work hard to meet the bar set by iPhone and, to a lesser extent, Android. The user interface has been polished just about everywhere, with a particular eye on finger-friendliness, though OS 6 will work just fine with only an optical trackpad.

As far as hardware goes, we know the BlackBerry 9800 will be packing a 5 megapixel camera, 512 MB of RAM, but have the same HVGA resolution display that current BlackBerrys offer. We’re still not sure if 9800’s processor has been upgraded at all, but it wouldn’t be overly surprising. It’s worth noting that the touchscreen doesn’t use RIM’s patented clicking touchscreen, SurePress, whose success has been ambiguous at best. By no stretch does that mean RIM has given up on SurePress, but it does show that they aren’t willing to make the gamble on what will be their top-of-the-line flagship device for their new operating system.

The slider form factor is also new for RIM, which is on the one hand exciting, but also scary. Their previous two departures from the traditional buttoned-down QWERTY-keyboarded candybar style, the Storm and the Pearl Flip, didn’t do excessively well, but before that was the Pearl, which was (and is) hugely popular.

What we’d like to see

As unlikely as it is to happen, even in the long-term, the OS needs a re-write from the ground-up. It wasn’t created as an application platform, it was created to efficiently handle wireless data, which, though still important, is less of a concern for buyers than it is for carriers. Being founded by a physicist, RIM has always been mindful of the harsh realities of the wireless space and so appealed to carriers’ sensibilities first and consumers’ second, meaning that efficiency issues have always been number one, but that will be a hard game to keep playing with iPhone around. Despite that, RIM’s need to make some practical sacrifices in order to appeal to a mass market that wants nothing more than to overload their carrier’s network downloading fart apps is entirely optional. They can keep doing what they’re doing now, but BlackBerrys would be in a lot more hands if developers really loved the platform, and for that to happen, the current development environment needs an overhaul.

Yeah, BlackBerry has app support right now, but it was bolted-on. Shy of starting over from scratch, RIM really needs to create better tools and better documentation for developers, who currently have a hell of a time working with what’s available.  For now, BlackBerry’s sizeable market share pulls app creators through the development process, but what if that share ever begins to shrink significantly? Nothing turns off developers more than a platform that is shrinking and is hard to write code for. If RIM can ramp up developer excitement enough, maybe there will be sufficient competition to warrant App World price points below $2.99, promoting considerably higher sales, and putting them in direct comparison with iPhone apps.

One of the killer apps the sells RIM smartphones right now is BlackBerry Messenger, and they’re already starting to capitalize on the popularity with a big marketing push. That needs to be followed up with new functions. The last update was almost a year ago, which introduced groups, profiles, and file shares in BBM. The next step is to take it off the device, and onto desktops. BlackBerry ID could help that portability, and turn the whole thing into a full-blown social network in and of itself. Provide some hooks for Facebook, and you could see some great synergies. As is, you can share what music is going through the native media player as a BBM status, but what if that status was also shunted out to Facebook, along with links to Amazon and YouTube of the song?Jussayin’.

BlackBerry Maps features prominently in many of the OS 6 videos, but it will need to haul ass to catch up to Google Maps. BlackBerry Maps’ primary advantage is that it is obscenely more efficient on data than Google Maps for mobile. If RIM could make a location sharing service (a la Latitude) that barely used battery life when updating, BBM would be a helpful piggyback to getting people to use BlackBerry Maps more. The right APIs could enable the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla to get nice and cozy with BlackBerry Maps.

Particularly when it comes to some of the higher-end Android handsets, BlackBerrys are going to need to step up their game if they want to compete in multimedia. 4″ displays, HDMI-out, more on-board storage memory, and DLNA connectivity for home entertainment systems are just some of the things that RIM could implement to be taken seriously by media hogs.

SurePress is such a can of worms. Some people love it (including me), but it’s easily a 50/50 split between people who do and those who don’t. RIM either needs to make it perfect with the Storm 3, or scrap it altogether and simply focus on having a good touchscreen experience with rich, interesting gestures. The icon garage door that OS 6 is implementing is a good start, but it’s been done extensively in Android. Palm was altogether adventurous with their gestures, and HTC does some great stuff with touch in their customizations. If RIM can do something really imaginative with SurePress, then more power to them, but if the 9800 is any indication, it shows that they’re at least willing to leave it behind and simply optimize the UI for touch with big icons. With any luck, the next big patch will have more gestures.

What’s next

Once OS 6 gets released to the masses, and is launched on a few other devices, like the 9670 and 9780, we’ll probably start seeing some backwards compatibility rolled-out, but likely stopping at anything with a trackball. We’re already seeing OS 6 run on the 9650, so we can safely expect the 9700, 9100, and maybe the 9550 to pick up their upgrades next.

There are a few side-projects RIM’s working on that will expand some of the native functions of BlackBerrys across the board; we’ve already covered Podcasts and Feeds, which could easily find their way to non-OS 6 devices, but there’s also Traffic and Protect which will tackle simple, but vital daily activities.

As far as devices go, there’s the controversial BlackBerry tablet, whose use case hasn’t really been nailed down yet. It’ll be a smartphone companion in some capacity, but will it run OS 6? Is that viable for such a significant form factor change, or will there be some customizations made? Will that just fragment the software further, being an even bigger headache for developers who need to decide if they really want to bother making a whole new app for the bigger screen? The Storm 3 looks like it could be a hot tamale with a Wi-Fi hotspot function, but again, how well SurePress has grown with age will be a deciding factor for many buyers.

Given how much RIM has told us about OS 6, and how many leaks of the BlackBerry 9800 we’ve seen, nobody’s expecting to be blown away by the announcement tomorrow. However, we’re all interested in seeing if the new look and the new device take off in the wild. Personally, I see the visual upgrades as the bare minimum facelift that RIM needed to do to keep pace with the competition. The few functional improvements we have seen so far, like podcasts, amalgamated RSS feeds, a dedicated social networking app, and universal search, are nothing especially new in the grand scheme of things, but they all seem to be well done. My expectation is that this is only the foundation for what is to come; RIM’s smart, so they have no doubt created OS 6 mindful of 3D gaming, augmented reality, and all of the other features that are making the newer platforms so much more fun to use.

In preparation for tomorrow, here are a bunch of posts where we’ve covered the BlackBerry 9800 and the new OS 6; read up, and you should have a pretty solid idea of what to expect.

BlackBerry OS 6.0 Video – Exhaustive Frame By Frame Breakdown

BlackBerry OS 6 Gets 16-Minute Video Walkthrough, With Fresh 9800 Pics

BlackBerry Bold 9800 Slider to be Renamed to Torch?

BlackBerry 9670 Clamshell and OS 6 Gets Video Review

BlackBerry Bold 9800 Slider Caught on Video, Confirms Accelerometer, AT&T, and No SurePress

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