The end of BlackBerry

I hate to kick someone when they’re down, but since the wounds are self-inflicted, I’ll get over it in this case. At its BlackBerry World show this month, Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the BlackBerry is dead. For the last few years, I’ve marveled in a horrified way as the once-top smartphone creator dug itself deeper into a pit of denial about the changes in the mobile market. It’s hard for a company to adjust to a new reality, especially after a decade of success that bred complacency. But RIM isn’t even trying any more.

It’s now crystal-clear there’s a deeper problem at RIM: It doesn’t view the BlackBerry as a platform but as a collection of one-off products. That is why the BlackBerry is a dead technology.

RIM’s statements on its BlackBerry strategy, stripped of the self-delusion, make that very clear.

“Forget what we said about BlackBerry OS 6 being the future”

Balsillie announced the latest great hope for RIM to grow its customer base, which iPhones and Android smartphones have been siphoning off for a couple years now. That hope is the Balance, the code name for the BlackBerry Bold 9900 device expected this summer that will run BlackBerry OS 6.1, an update to the major 6.0 release of last summer. Its browser is supposedly improved, and it supports near-field communication, such as for use in wireless payments. RIM is also touting its ability to support separate management of corporate and personal assets, but that was actually a capability introduced in BlackBerry OS 6 last summer.

Oh, and this update is called BlackBerry OS 7.0, in an attempt to pretend it is a major OS advancement. Users aren’t stupid and will see this marketing trick for what it is.

Worse, BlackBerry OS 6.1/7.0 will run on the Balance device only — it won’t work with any previous BlackBerry model, not even the 6.0-based BlackBerry Torch that debuted a mere nine months ago or the BlackBerry Bold 9700 models that finally began getting the 6.0 update last month. That means RIM is orphaning all its current users, including those who reaffirmed their commitment by betting on the 6.0 OS that was supposed to be the basis of the BlackBerry’s revitalized future. I bet they feel really stupid right now for believing RIM’s promises.

The fact that RIM is releasing 6.1/7.0 for only the new devices also shows it does not view the BlackBerry as a platform. Back in the days when cellphones were just cellphones, the idea of being part of a platform — like Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux PCs, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices — simply made no sense. Each device was a one-off with prescribed capabilities (phone calls and, in the case of BlackBerry, text messaging).

The iPhone changed that, reinventing smartphones as mobile platforms where one OS ran on multiple devices so that users and application developers could count on consistency across devices. OS upgrades worked with at least a generation or two of previous models — just like we all expect for PCs and servers. Google’s Android adopted the same approach, even if its OS upgrades weren’t as tightly managed and synchronized as Apple’s iOS updates.

RIM stuck with an “each device is a separate product” mentality, which is why even its Web-capable devices hardly ever show up in mobile Web traffic surveys and why its applications are so few in number and limited in capability. If you develop websites, you can’t count on any consistency from one BlackBerry model in terms of HTML and JavaScript functions, so you likely don’t even try. If you develop apps for BlackBerry, you face a mind-numbing set of differences on everything from screen size to OS version that also makes you think twice.

BlackBerry OS 6.0 was supposed to change that, providing a common platform across all BlackBerry devices — at least those released in 2010 and later. Now we find out that it was just another one-off OS, essentially for the Torch, that got some retrofits to bring its browser belatedly to a few other models.

When the Balance devices finally become available, existing users will have to ask if they can trust that this one is the real platform. Additionally, businesses will have to ask if they want yet another BlackBerry variant in the mix — for them, migrating to a real platform such a iOS or Android would make a lot more management and support sense.

“We’ll partially manage iOS and Android devices for you, too”

Balsillie also announced that a future version of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) will manage both iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad and Android devices. That’s an idea long suggested by pundits like me. In the context of the Balance announcement, it’s clear that BES is RIM’s real platform, not its devices. RIM may be awakening to that realization.

But can you trust RIM to deliver? Its BES 5.03 update announced in September 2010 was released finally in April 2011, eight months after the Torch was released. That’s significant because the whole point of BES 5.03 was to support BlackBerry OS 6.0’s ability to separately manage personal data and services from corporate data and services. This feature represented a key adaptation by RIM to the new world of mobile devices being “co-owned” by users and their companies. But look at how long it took to deliver.

Who knows when an iOS- and Android-savvy BES will be released? In the meantime, there are plenty of very capable, proven mobile device management tools for these platforms on the market. Most organizations are already shifting to a bring-your-own-device world and adopting such tools. By the time RIM gets around to a multiplatform BES, I’m not sure any company will still be waiting. After all, to add iOS and Android support, RIM had to buy another company (Ubitexx)—it has a lot of work to do to actually get that technology transferred into BES. And the acquisition isn’t even final.

RIM’s execution pace is typically glacial. Given how poorly it integrated the QNX operating system it bought last year into the disappointing BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, why would any IT organization bet on this promise? The fact that the PlayBook isn’t even manageable by BES should give any IT organization pause about what RIM will actually deliver for iOS and Android management.

RIM’s own statements suggest that the support for iOS and Android device management will be subpar. It won’t support push messaging, even though both platforms support it when connected to Exchange ActiveSync servers such as Microsoft Exchange, the latest versions of Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise, and Google Apps for Business. The very technology RIM is acquiring from Ubitexx also supports push on iOS, notes Sepharim Group analyst Bob Egan.

RIM also said it won’t support applications management or access to firewall-protected data on iOS and Android devices. Competing products already support both. Again, the Ubitexx technology supports application management on iOS — so why not in RIM’s planned version? Plus, the iOS- and Android-aware version of BES will be a Web-based product only, not something an enterprise can run on its own servers as it can the regular BES product.

It’s clear that this promised management support for iOS and Android will be substandard at best, and RIM’s BES management platform will stay a proprietary system for devices that are used less and less in business. This is the same strategy Microsoft has employed for years to hold back the Mac: promising support for Mac OS X but delivering limited, clunky products over and over again, with inferior capabilities and lots of gotchas. The idea of course is to make Mac users decide they want the better “real thing.” Yet the opposite has occurred: Mac OS X sales have soared and Windows at best stays flat. Users are discovering they don’t need Office, either.

Microsoft’s strategy is about stacking the cards in its favor, but even with its huge market share and dependent enterprise customers, Microsoft hasn’t succeeded with this approach. RIM is starting from a much worse position: Its sales are well below those of iOS and Android, and last year enterprises discovered they aren’t dependent on RIM.

So why bother? That’s the only conclusion to draw from RIM’s latest grand plan. It should stop pretending it has any other strategy than to hope it will wake up one morning to discover the iPhone and Android phenomenon was just a bad dream. That storyline doesn’t even work in soap operas, much less the real world.

[Read more of Galen Gruman’s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.]

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