What makes them powerful: For many American subscribers, Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry operating system remains synonymous with the smartphone revolution: As of the third quarter of 2010, BlackBerry accounts for 37.3 percent of U.S. smartphone market share according to digital measurement firm comScore, outpacing second-place Apple's iOS platform by 13 percentage points. But as the old saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall--and right now, RIM is in freefall. Research firm NPD Group reports BlackBerry devices accounted for just 22 percent of U.S. smartphone sales in the third quarter, down from 28 percent the previous quarter. Google's Android OS accounted for 44 percent of purchases in the third quarter, up 11 percentage points quarter-over-quarter, while Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS held relatively steady, rising one percentage point over the second quarter to 23 percent. Adding insult to injury, just 42 percent of existing BlackBerry users plan to stay with the brand the next time they upgrade their handset, per Nielsen Company research.
It's impossible to discount a company with RIM's reach or mindshare, but the reality is that BlackBerry is trapped in limbo--co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie have failed to successfully translate the platform's success with business users into the consumer segment. At the same time, iPhone and Android have made enormous inroads into the enterprise space, offering a fluid user experience and a wealth of software options that BlackBerry simply can't match. That doesn't mean Lazaridis and Balsillie have given up, however. In August, RIM introduced its long-awaited BlackBerry 6 operating system revamp, promising a redesigned user interface optimized for both touchscreens and trackpads, a new WebKit-based browser, an upgraded multimedia experience and a new Universal Search tool. BlackBerry 6 also leverages the operating system's roots in mobile messaging via the new Social Feeds application, which integrates the native BlackBerry Messenger solution with services including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, AOL Instant Messenger, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. What's more, the new Text Messages app expands SMS and MMS communication, giving users the flexibility to view a conversation in one threaded chat as well as share photos, videos and related rich media content.
Lazaridis and Balsillie also are looking beyond the smartphone. In September, RIM unveiled the BlackBerry PlayBook, a new tablet device designed to rival Apple's iPad. Running a new, post-BlackBerry 6 operating system from QNX, the BlackBerry Tablet OS, the PlayBook features a 7-inch LCD touchscreen, dual HD cameras and WiFi/Bluetooth 2.1 support, with 3G and 4G models forthcoming. Perhaps most significant, the tablet supports Adobe Flash-enabled Web browsing, a feature notoriously absent from the iPad. The Tablet OS also supports Java, enabling developers to translate their existing BlackBerry 6 apps to the PlayBook format. (RIM later confirmed the BlackBerry Tablet OS eventually will replace the BlackBerry smartphone operating system across all devices the company produces, although the transition is likely to take several years.)
But to reassert its legitimacy as a major mobile force, RIM must do more than capture the consumer imagination--it also must reignite interest among a developer community that has moved on to the more lucrative opportunities offered by iPhone and Android. As of September, the BlackBerry App World storefront offers a little more than 10,000 applications. By comparison, Apple's App Store now tops 300,000, and Android Market boasts over 100,000. RIM has promised new payment options (including in-app purchases) to woo developers to App World, but the perceived clunkiness of the BlackBerry OS remains a major sticking point as well. A recent survey published by mobile software platform provider Appcelerator and research firm IDC reports that only 34 percent of developers say they are "very interested" in creating BlackBerry applications; by comparison, 91 percent of developer respondents express strong enthusiasm for building apps for iPhone, with 82 percent stating comparable interest in Android. RIM's recent moves indicate that Lazaridis and Balsillie feel BlackBerry is still in the race--the question is whether anyone else shares that belief. --Jason