I've never been a BlackBerry user. But I've seriously considered one at a few points over the years, and I've been genuinely curious to see how the first BlackBerry 10 device fares. Last week's launch event didn't sell me on one, but I'm still curious to try it. Unfortunately for BlackBerry, née RIM, the event also served to again highlight some of the problems that have plagued the company in recent years.
You'll get different opinions about when those problems really started, but you can directly trace last week's launch event back to one date almost three years ago: April 9th, 2010. That's when RIM announced it was buying QNX Software Systems, the company whose operating system would ultimately provide the basis for BlackBerry 10 (and the PlayBook before it). At the time, the acquisition didn't signal a massive shift for RIM -- it mostly talked up things like in-car infotainment systems and "intelligent peripherals."
That changed with the introduction of the PlayBook in the fall of 2010, though, which also marked the beginning of a hurry-up-and-wait period for the company. The PlayBook would only be released seven months after it was announced, and even then in a state that seemed rushed out the door. It infamously didn't do email unless it was connected to a BlackBerry phone -- a feature, among others, that didn't become available until a software update was released in late-February of 2012.
While QNX found its way onto the PlayBook fairly quickly, there was a far longer wait for BlackBerry phones. Despite showing off the PlayBook earlier in the month, RIM announced in late April of 2011 that the promised BlackBerry 6.1 OS release would actually be Blackberry 7 -- a change apparently justified because it was "such a big update." It wasn't, and RIM went on to announce its next big OS, then known as BBX, in October of that year. That proved to be the longest wait of all -- one that finally ended last week. Sort of.
To its credit, the company almost certainly helped itself more than it hurt itself with last week's BB10 launch event, although it remains to be seen if it's enough to make up for the damage caused by the delays leading up to it. It delivered a product that was finally finished and, as CEO Thorsten Heins has said, it certainly didn't take the easy route. It committed to seeing BB10 through instead of switching to Android or breaking up the company, and it managed to deliver something that stands out against its competitors. Yes, the design of the Z10 and the familiar grid of icons bring to mind the iPhone 5, but the BB10 OS itself does deliver some real advances in areas where iOS and Android have remained stagnant.
That's most evident with the BlackBerry Hub feature, which offers a more glanceable interface and an alternative to hopping from one app to the next for each task. It may not be perfect, especially for those dealing with overflowing inboxes as noted in our review, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. The use of gestures and a focus on one-handed operation is also welcome in a market where 5-inch smartphones are increasingly becoming the norm, and the company has really played to its strengths with BlackBerry Balance, which could be a real selling point in the business and enterprise market.
The waiting isn't over yet.
Innovative features don't guarantee success though -- a lot of this editorial could also apply to Windows Phone -- and there's still much that remains wait-and-see. Which brings us back to the company's biggest problem. It waited too long to adapt to a changing market, and it left its customers (and potential customers) waiting as it tried to catch up in recent years. The waiting isn't over yet.
While the company is quick to boast about 70,000 apps for the platform, including many big ones, there are still plenty of holes that are hard to overlook. Even some of the major announcements from last week's event, like Kindle and Skype, are only "committed" to BB10 with no firm release date set, and the future for other key titles remains far less certain. Still, the app situation was largely expected, and maybe even better than expected. Other announcements from the event raised more concern for the company.
The worst of that news, though admittedly forecast by some analysts, is that the US launch for the Z10 will only come in mid-March, more than a month after its debut in Canada and the UK -- and more than a month after BlackBerry's big marketing bet on a Super Bowl ad. That's a significant gap, and one that the company surely tried its best to avoid. Yet, it's there, and BlackBerry will have to count on US carriers to build up interest again in March (an exact date still isn't clear), at a time when the Z10 will also have to compete for attention with new phones announced at Mobile World Congress.
The other phone showed at the launch event, the keyboard-equipped Q10, will come even later -- sometime in April, according to the company, although that doesn't seem to be set in stone. That's also not entirely unexpected --it was previously said to be coming "shortly" after the Z10 -- but it gives many, especially the BlackBerry faithful, a reason to wait and not buy the Z10.
Long delays from announcement to launch aren't uncommon in this industry, but they rarely turn out well. Just look at HP, which announced its TouchPad tablet and other new webOS devices to much fanfare at a big event in February of 2011, but didn't get them out the door until that summer (with the Pre 3 not even making it to the US market). Or, for that matter, RIM with the PlayBook.
None of that adds up to a no-win situation for BlackBerry, but it only serves to continue a refrain that makes things more and more difficult for the company as it drags on. While we've been waiting for BlackBerry 10, Apple and Google have pulled even farther away from the pack and established two entrenched ecosystems that are now harder than ever to pull people away from. For BlackBerry to stake a claim on even a distant third place spot, it doesn't just have to finally measure up to Android and iOS, it has to convince those growing more tired every day that the waiting is finally over.