Research in Motion faces huge challenges in its battle to survive and they'll all be on attendees' minds at this week at RIM's annual BlackBerry World conference in Orlando. What will also be on our minds: the ticking clock counting down the time RIM has left to turn around its fortunes.
[ Free download: The mobile security survival guide ]
RIM has a complex juggling act on its hands: introducing a new software platform, gaining developer support, creating new hardware, gaining user support, igniting and sustaining a mutually reinforcing ecosystem, and doing so before it runs out of what little room it has left, as sales contract and its stock price plunges.
The software focus: platform and UI
In 2010 RIM announced it was acquiring QNX Software, which offered a modern, modular, well-designed, real-time operating system kernel. The first BlackBerry branded mobile product with the new OS was the underwhelming PlayBook tablet. But then almost all tablets except Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle and Kindle Fire have been underwhelming.
BACKGROUND: 11 not entirely useless factoids about RIM
RIM's future hinges on the QNX code, currently in the form of PlayBook OS 2.0 and eventually to be released as BlackBerry 10. The operating system and the user interface on top of it has to be embraced both by developers and consumers.
RIM's new CEO, Thorsten Heins, has been criticized for early comments about staying the course, about not needing radical changes. Most of the criticism misses his point: The adoption of QNX as the next OS platform is a radical break with RIM's software heritage. Applications written for the current BlackBerry 7 OS can't be carried forward into BlackBerry 10. Heins is in agreement that the software revolution begun at RIM over the past year or so is essential to the company's future.
RIM has been rapidly increasing the resources it devotes to building relationships with software developers. They have to be convinced that RIM's new mobile platform is worth writing software.
There are some indications that it is. RIM reports that monthly app downloads, for PlayBook and the still-existing BlackBerry 7 smartphones, average 6 million or more; and that a high percentage of those are paid apps. Though both figures trail the comparable numbers for Apple iOS, the difference is narrower than many would have thought, and greater, says RIM, than Android. In addition, RIM claims that apps for the PlayBook -- the first test for the new mobile OS -- have been burgeoning, and registered developers are increasing in number.
At the same time, what RIM has to offer now and for the next few months, at least, are the existing BlackBerry products running BlackBerry OS 7. It may offer new incentives to developers and end users to prop up sales.
Evolving the UI may be trickier. RIM's early UI designs succeeded because the functions were simple and bandwidth was limited. What's changed with the iPhone touch interface is that simplicity is a design that masks a lot of complexity. At the same time, touch creates the sensation of direct and immediate user interaction with or control over the device's capabilities, unmediated by a mouse, touchpad, trackball or keyboard.