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January 25th 2012 9:43 pm

The cold reality of the mobile OS market

I received a lot of thoughtful -- and because this is the internet, also some not so thoughtful -- responses to my piece last week proposing that RIM abandon its efforts to build its own mobile OS and instead adopt one of the other options out there, and I wanted to expand on some of what I wrote.

First, I didn't make this argument because I dislike RIM. I have a lot of respect and admiration for what the company has accomplished. I first started using a BlackBerry back in 1999 and carried one off and on for years. I honestly wrote what I wrote because I don't want to see them disappear entirely. Given the obstacles they face it's very likely that BlackBerry 10 will fail to gain traction in the market, and by the time RIM's leadership acknowledges this it will probably be too late for them to survive as an independent entity. (That it may already be too late for them to do anything anyway was a common response to what I wrote.)

Whether RIM and its new CEO wants to acknowledge it or not, the cold reality is that OSes, rather than devices, have emerged as the primary players in a brutally competitive mobile market. That means it's going to be incredibly difficult for BlackBerry 10, which is entering the market years behind everything else, to create the ecosystem of apps, developers, and devices that is necessary to succeed in mobile. That need to create an ecosystem, and the complexity that that entails, has resulted a mobile market that simply can't allow too many coexisting competitors. (Just look at the PC market, where the complexities of building an ecosystem resulted in one platform -- Windows -- predominating for years.)

When it comes to smartphones and tablets, right now it doesn't look like the market can support more than two or three different options. A few years ago we definitely knew there were too many mobile operating systems out there, with iOS, Android, Windows Mobile/Phone, Symbian, webOS, and BlackBerry all jockeying for position. Somehow that list was going to get winnowed down, and last year we saw Nokia abandoning Symbian (and its putative successor, MeeGo) in favor of Windows Phone and webOS crashing and burning (and yes, I still don't think open sourcing it will change things much). In the meantime, Android and iOS have grown tremendously, with Microsoft working hard to establish Windows Phone (things are looking up!) and RIM still months away from introducing phones with its next-gen OS.

This isn't necessarily the equilibrium I would have opted for if things were entirely up to me. I love geeking out on different platforms -- I'm someone who tried (and failed) more than once to get MeeGo running on a netbook just because I wanted something new and different to play with -- and so for me a world with fewer options is a sadder place. For that reason alone I would be thrilled to see BlackBerry 10 take off, just as I was hopeful that webOS would solve its problems and emerge as a strong competitor.

However few or many mobile OSes we end up with, eventually things will change. It may be that eventually all the incumbents get complacent and some new platform gets introduced that leaps ahead of everything else and totally disrupts everything. It could be that web-based apps get so good that the underlying OS becomes a lot less important. Or we could see mobile devices supplanted by something new, just like smartphones and tablets are currently stealing the PC's thunder. However things turnout, if I were running RIM I'd be worrying a lot more about what mobile's next battles will be rather than trying to fight one that largely seems to be drawing to a conclusion.

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Diverging a bit from the mobile OS discussion, one thing I think RIM should really be focusing on is opening up their NOC infrastructure to other mobile platforms. This is the thing that put RIM and its BlackBerry devices on the map way-back-when. They gained near-exclusivity in the Enterprise space and then proceeded to move in to the Consumer market, with good success thanks to BBM.

With the current players in the mobile OS (and hardware) arena, we're now seeing a trend in the opposite direction that's lovingly called 'Consumerisation of IT' where Enterprises are either adopting non-BlackBerry handsets/tablets as their primary communicators, or allowing employees to use their personal devices for business as well, aka Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). BYOD poses a major security threat, since the business essentially has to deal with a bit of a Catch-22 situation where it can't just lock down the entire device and restrict functions for security purposes, but instead can only 'sandbox' the portion of the device that holds the Enterprise's data and provides the way into the company's network. Gartner has a great white paper on this here: www.gartner.com­/it­/page.jsp­?id­=507423

Consumerisation of IT and the BYOD trend has led to the emergence of new players in the Enterprise space to help them provide, manage and protect business data on personal devices. Companies like Good Technology and Excitor are starting to rise as the leaders in this market. (See Gartner's Magic Quadrant for the Enterprise Wireless Email Market: www.gartner.com­/technology­/reprints.do­?id­=1­-18JI9W... )

This also means that RIM's underlying NOC infrastructure is also under threat from the above competition. I'm sure that Apple is also going to start shifting more focus to the Enterprise market in the near future, too - which would be even more bad news for RIM.

Getting back to my opening statement, I think that in order for RIM to keep their market leader position in the Enterprise space, they need to reposition their NOC infrastructure as a service, rather than a component of their mobile arm. By making it a service, opening it up to the other mobile OS platforms and throwing in something geared towards BYOD mobile device management (MDM), will help them retain their leadership position in the Enterprise market - and perhaps become their primary revenue source? That way then, at least they're pre-empting the reduction in their mobile device/OS market share by making sure that the other platforms become dependent on them as they focus on taking over the Enterprise space.
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totally agree! one step further, I would announce, on top of RIM's cooling body, WP7 is dying with its new girlfriend Nokia..... Nokia as it is now is NOT going to survive much longer. It either have to embrace Android, or .... yes, die. WP7 is not a bad OS, but it is not going to survive.
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The ultimate future of Nokia may be uncertain but Microsoft isn't going to give up on the mobile space and Nokia brings a lot more to the WP7 game than any of the other handset manufacturers that have already participated. Microsoft is not likely to let Nokia go away any time soon whether they give them money to stay afloat or buy them out right and handle them the same way that Google is doing with Motorola Mobility.
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Agree with you on the importance of supporting an OS with a strong ecosystem (and the expense of trying to build one). That point was pounded home last year by Nokia as it rationalized moving to Windows Phone. However, there are also usually only three of four (profitable) hardware vendors in a given dominant ecosystem.

While BlackBery 10 faces an uphill climb, Android and Windows Phone are not gateways to utopia. The former is a very crowded, competitive field that includes companies with deep supply chain ties (Samsung) and RIM would clearly be a less favored child than Nokia in the Windows Phone camp although it would probably get more support than the likes of LG and HTC if it would commit exclusively (which it would have to do to either licensed OS).

One of the main challenges for RIM licensing these OSes is a cultural one. Somewhat like Apple, they have always believed in owning both the hardware and software.
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It would be difficult but I think adopting another OS would do two things for RIM:
  1. Buy them some time to get their own solution off the ground (like when Palm made Windows Mobile devices)
  2. RIM makes some quality hardware which could give other handset manufacturers a run for their money.
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Totally agree, it's not longer about the phone maker, and it is all about the OS.

I think RIM's best bet is do everything it can to make BB 10 even more enterprise friendly, as iOS and Android is eating up its market share in that region. If they can keep the business folk that will give them a little buffer time to built up the app ecosystem, and push out BB 11 so that it will be on par withe iOS 6, Jellybean, and whatever is after Tango.

I have never owned, or really even used, a BB device, but I absolutely don't want them to fail. Having more horses in the race makes for more competition, and helps the consumer with faster innovations.
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I've owned two BBs and I loved the hardware (call quality, reception, battery life, build quality, etc.) but I loathed the OS. I'd really like to see what RIM could do if they made an Android phone. I'd be interested in what they could do with WP7 but less so considering that WP7 is like Microsoft's iPhone except they have gotten other companies to build the phone for them.
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I feel the same way about the hardware. If BlackBerry devices are on the precipice of extinction, why do they command a premium resale price? Android smartphones depreciate in value faster than a Yugo. Clearly, the market still sees significant value in BlackBerry smartphones.
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Have you tried purchasing a used Android phone lately? I'm in the market for a better T-Mobile Android phone for my wife than the Optimus T she is using, and have been watching Craig's list and eBay for an entire month because I can't seem to find anything other than the oldest junkers that fall into my proce range. I wish they were depreciating in value as quickly as you think they are.
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Peter, good follow up article. RIM definitely will have a tough time competing - I don't disagree, but if things get even more rough for RIM, I still believe they're not going to throw in the towel - they've already committed to QNX and solving the long term ecosystem problem on their own. If they think that they didn't have the expertise to fight this battle, they would have gone Android very early on - they would have done what the other handset manufacturers did, which was to abandon their own software for Android. They chose not to go that route because they see more value in controlling everything from top to bottom.

Sure, the existing OS is arguably not competitive compared to iOS and Android, but if you talk to a crackberry addict (which I know they are dwindling in numbers in North America), they'll tell you why they're still sticking with their BlackBerry - because it's better than iOS and Android at doing communications - stellar battery life, a keyboard that's second to none, the most popular IM system, push email on pretty much any email system - on this note, do you know how many iOS users I run into that uses the default Gmail email settings? They set it to PULL every 30 minutes, which wastes battery or PULL manually everytime they launch the mail app.... How are you supposed to communicate real time with iPhone users?? You get them to setup Gmail using ActiveSync/Exchange and they say they don't want that or they don't know how to do that or they don't have time to figure it out.... =/ Now, I don't know how well iMessage is doing, but I know of iOS users who don't use iMessage. Try to find a BlackBerry user that doesn't use BBM.
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RIM always made good quality hardware. Blackberries are built like tanks, and perfect for the Enterprise. The software is among the best for email/messaging, and enterprises around value it for its security. Users hate Blackberry for its apps, clunky usability.

To me, I think RIM should capitalize on its strengths, and go after weaknesses of competitors, in order to find a niche to exist. Messaging, email and security, along with bulletproof, keyboard devices: who wouldn't kill for an Android that offered Blackberry keyboard, killer BB email and BBM, as well as enterprise class security?

So, why not a BB device running Android? And if RIM also created a fully curated, enterprise focused Android app store, then I think RIM might have a killer formula for selling into Enterprise. They already have their trust, they are only losing the interest of the Enterprises's employee's. So give both what they want: A modern OS, good App store and enterprise class tools and security. RIM could gain back the enterprise.
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Blackberry should give spending bags of money on developing the new Blackberry 10 OS and rather should integrate this OS with Android, Skin it their way!
This way they will gain popularity and People will enjoy a Dual experiences!
Throw in BBM and Email functionality and integrate their World famous Keyboard.
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I guess that is way too hard for RIM to carry out..... remember, they haven't even put BBM and email into their playbook yet! almost a year after the launch..... and the playbook supposedly is the prototype of BB10 OS..... well, now we know how lazy (or stupid) RIM engineers are. (Sorry for the strong words, but no email in 2012.....are you kidding me???)
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Didn't know the playbook did not support email...... sheesh. That's off the menu now
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If RIM is serious on continuing with BB10 they should kill the playbook and spend all their key resources on their phones. Success or failure of the tablet market isn't going to save RIM, their phones are.

I hear that the Tablet is a learning ground for their Phone OS - I'm sure this is true but the expensive and slow way to do development.
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Right on target. Given the enterprise focus maybe Windows phone would be the best choice.
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I've been thinking a lot about RIM's problems since the other question you asked about them last week.

It seems the only thing that RIM could do to help their current predicament would be to release a BB10 device in the next month or two.

It's certainly within their power to do so, they've stated on numerous occasions that the main reason for delay is because they are waiting on delivery of a new chipset! They should just launch a BB10 device based upon the 9900 hardware (like they originally intended to do!). The "next generation" hardware can wait until the... ummm... next generation. ;-)

Baring that, I don't see what they could that would preserve marketshare and more importantly, mindshare.

Here's a link to refresh your memory to an article about their "Colt" device from last August: www.bgr.com­/2011­/08­/08­/rims­-first­-qnx­-phone­-reveal...
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I agree. However, isn't BB10 is supposed to support Android Apps? That would instantly give them access to a very large ecosystem.

Honestly, this is tough battle for them. I think there biggest challenge is timing. They need to have this stuff available now not later.
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I don't think those devices would provide the best Android experience. Why get a BB running android in some compatibility layer rather than getting a top of the line Android device?
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RIM would do well to catch up. A die hard user I was until the lackluster phones and low memory drove me away. I still say BBM was the most useful communication app I've ever had but even that wasn't enough to keep me away from Android. I got a survey request from RIM just today asking some very probing questions about why I strayed away. Perhaps they will listen and get with the times
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I've participated in this discussion here and a few other places so I don't remember where I originally said this but I don't see a way for RIM to survive long-term unless they can figure out what the next big thing is and get in on it (or start it) early. Blackberry 10 has a chance (albeit a very small one) to catch on but even then I think that is going to have to be a long game, possibly a longer one than RIM is able to play, especially given how quickly HP dropped out and they were probably one of the few, besides Microsoft, capable of playing a long game.

If RIM wants to survive and possibly see Blackberry 10 catch on thy need to do two things:
  1. Do what Palm did and adopt another, more popular, mobile OS, at least temporarily, and put that on some devices. Remember when Palm put out a Windows Mobile phone? I thought it was pretty cool by WinMo standards. I think BB makes some very nice hardware (despite how crappy I think their mobile OS is) and putting Android and/or WP7 on some devices would be a good stop-gap option.
  2. RIM announced a little while ago they were going to beef up their mobile middle-ware that would allow them to manage mobile devices regardless of their mobile OS. I think that this is a smart move because if they have something worthwhile to offer this could be a good source of revenue until Google and Apple end up filling this space and it is no longer needed (think Novell back in the day before Microsoft evolved to make their networking products largely unnecessary).
Both of those options could allow RIM to survive long enough to let Blackberry 10 catch on.

The bottom line is that there is still a lot the public doesn't know. Will BB10 ship with BBM and BIS enabled from day one? If so then the odds are better than they can at least hang on long-term. If the development of BB10 is as bad off as most of the rumors say they are then they have two options: hope the gamble pays off big and they can play this short game or adopt some survival tactics and hope they can hang on long enough for things to turn around.
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I totally agree w Peter. There is hardly room for more than 3 OS. & I agree that OS is more important than hw. Because apps are key. So, bye bye RIM if they stick to their OS, idem for Bada (anybody ever tried?), & tough tough catch up for Windows.
On the developer experience, we are frustrated by the very different behaviour of our app (integrated w facebook via our platform to share emotions) on 3 flavours of Android on LG, HTC & Samsung devices...
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Make no mistakes - Blackberry's are dead. RIM could focus on niche opportunities but the better option would be to partner with Good Technologies and re-focus on the enterprise software market where it still has a somewhat strong positioning. Some ideas I have put to paper are here: www.digitalwire.com­/­?q­=node­/25
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Good piece - looks like we share a similar view. I like your idea about RIM acquiring Good Technologies (or even Excitor); think that would actually be a good strategic move!
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Regardless of how well Rim (or any vendor) promotes their OS, its features may be as important as anything in determining a winning product. When the Blackberry was introduced it was a true innovation, as was the iPhone, as were phones based on Andoid.

When a product is new and exciting, it sells and becomes popular. Developers fall behind a climbing stars automatically and bail out when products age naturally.

Microsoft and Apple both know this, but for some reason Rim, like so many others forgot it or became lost along the way.

To succeed Rim needs to do three things.

1) They must radically innovate. Any new products must be so far ahead of current technology that when launched they take users' breath away, and give their respective competition heartache.

2) They must grease the adoption through mutually beneficial tools & revenue streams, and deliver these directly to developers with technical support and hand holding.

3) They must not sit still. As soon as their product is released, they must immediately begin the delivery of their next mind bender.

This is what Apple does, and they rarely look back.

The problem with success is that it generates euphoria which causes leaders to become distracted. They mistake the success as the goal instead of the journey.
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The greatest challenge that RIM faces is itself. It has been just too slow reacting to changes in its environment. And we can probably all agree that it is too slow executing on a vision/plan. For enterprise users, RIM's plans to extend Blackberry Enterprise Server to support other platforms is their best chance of keeping faith with their existing user base. However, they are so late that it may not matter; re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship and all . . .

There are at least two significant problems that RIM/BBES faces when it comes to non-Blackberry platforms:
  • The very notion of a managed device is at odds with the BYOD movement. If this is my phone, just because the company's email is on it; it does not follow that the company gets to tell me what apps I run. Virtualization may be the solution here, but RIM isn't even a player with a solution or a clue in that regard.
  • Even ICS offers too little when it comes to support of central management and policy at the corporate level . . . for phones that are company property. This is going to confound the unwary/complacent IT shops when they finally get around to looking at smartphone management with Microsoft System Center or Good or ???. Android, unless RIM forks it like Amazon did, is NOT the answer for corporate IT. It is a strange world where Apple, of all players, is the most manageable of the smartphone platforms (but hopefully soon to be joined by Microsoft).
It is hard to hold out any hope for RIM at this point.
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Just a thought Android is open source monolithic linux ,Qnx is realtime microkernel linux like OS high performance used for process control apps.If RIM could develop the interface for open source code then they could have one of the fastest most efficient OS's for tablets and phones.
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Great follow up. The RIM situation reminds me of Iridium's once extraordinary potential, unique infrastructure, and dedicated user base - made nearly irrelevant by rapid changes in the overall marketplace.

I bet that RIM ends up like Iridium - still around, but not in the "top 3" category the new CEO is aiming for (how embarrassing to aim for top 3 instead of first place?)...
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I miss the old days....when RIM was a two-pager. I need to be connected to work, but I so dislike the phone. Instead of "server X is down, restart it." Now I get a the whole life story before they finally tell me what's wrong. And, then you have engage in all sorts of talk before you can say 'Done'.

Sure there's times where more information is needed, but that's called email....but since a common issue is the operators are emailing each other back and forth, and it isn't instant enough...so often there'll be calls to say that there'll be an email on the problem they're calling me about. I'd hate to hear an operator try to read message headers to me on the phone.... (the operators 'im' each other through a list, so its usually a delay along the 6 or so hops to and from it)

Though its more annoying when they say, I'm about to email this problem in....or open a ticket on this problem....and that's all the call is about.

Plus there's always the problem where my Android forgets to check for new email until I reboot it...or it takes a while before it decides it should ring, and by then its rolling over to voicemail.

Though it is nice having that option to ssh from my phone into work.
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The reason RIM is struggling is because the smartphone market has become so app-centric. Before the iPhone, every brand had their own different OS and no average users really seemed to care what ran on the phone as long as the hardware met their needs. It could have stayed that way to a large degree if Steve Jobs had stuck to his guns and forced everyone to use web apps instead of native apps, because then the other platforms would only have needed a webkit browser to compete with the iPhone. It was when Apple opened up native apps that everything really changed. Now, even average users are making purchase decisions based on what apps they can run on the different phones. Therefore, they are choosing the "safe" platforms that they feel pretty certain will run the apps they want. This has applied to the tablet market as well. If I had a dollar for every comment I saw after the TouchPad fire sale that read, "Nice hardware, but there are no good apps for it," I could be retired by now.

The irony is that Apple rarely listens to users and gives them what they want. Steve always told people what they wanted, what was best for them, and those who identified themselves as Apple users took his words as gospel, forgetting what they thought they wanted previously. More often than any rational person would bet on, Steve was more or less right. The irony comes in because the ONE time he gave in and listened to users and opened up iOS to native apps, it sabotaged the entire mobile market and reduced it to two real players. Now we all gripe and complain about Android fragmentation, not being able to get every cool app on every platform, and the lack of real competition in the mobile space. Well, Steve gave us what we thought we wanted and now we are reaping the fruits of our desire.

Again, the irony is that if Steve had held the line on the web apps front, the app scene would have been a lot less exciting for the first few years, but would have been paying off big by now because we would all be free to walk into a carrier store and grab almost any phone we liked and be pretty darn sure that we would be able to run any app we want to since every phone would run a webkit browser and, therefore, would support all the same apps. This would have allowed a more competitive market where, just as in the "old days," we would be choosing a phone for its hardware rather than the OS.

Some will tell me I am a fool for knocking native apps, pointing out some of the incredible games that are only possible because of native development, but I have never been a big believer in multi-purpose devices. For the past twenty years, I have been trying to find the one device that will do everything I want, but I always end up using multiple devices for different purposes. It's the holy grail of devices, and I doubt there will ever be a device that becomes my "one device." If I want to play a higher-end game, I'd much rather play on a dedicated console. For time-waster games, web apps would suffice.

So, all that to say that the only shot RIM has is to solve the "missing app" dilemma in a way that doesn't require developers to dedicate a division to yet another arcane development process. Everyone keeps saying that RIM seems to have no clue what they are up against or how to get back in the game, but I think they do recognize this dilemma, which is why they are working on that Android compatibility layer. VM layers tend to suck, so I think they would be better served finding a way to allow Android developers to simply compile their apps for BB10 right from their current workflow without having to make any code changes. I am not sure how feasible that would be, but it would be an attractive way to get developers onboard.

I still think Blackberry is destined to follow in the footsteps of EPOC (the Psion OS that became Symbian OS), Embedix (the Qtopia based linux that ran on the Zaurus 5500), and other great operating systems that were ahead of their time when they first came out but later fell by the wayside as lesser but more quickly evolving platforms took over the mobile device space.

[Just to be clear, I am aware that native apps were already happening on other platforms before the iPhone was even announced, but apps were not the in the forefront of the average user's mind at that point. It wasn't until Apple started their "App for that" marketing that the average user thought much about what you could run on a phone.]
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"The irony is that Apple rarely listens to users and gives them what they want. Steve always told people what they wanted, what was best for them, and those who identified themselves as Apple users took his words as gospel, forgetting what they thought they wanted previously."

I'm an Apple user and Steve never told me anything.
Steve Jobs, and the people he worked with, made the cellphone THEY wanted.
I find your attempt to make Apple customers into mindless followers of a messiah ugly and arrogant.
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I speak from experience. I am a recovering Apple fanboy who started and ran an Apple User Group for several years. Every Apple user I know who was a hardcore Apple fan at the time the iPhone came out fit the description quite well, right along with me. I should have been more clear that I was referring to that era. I recognize that, as Apple grows in its userbase, the rabid fanboyism is no longer the norm. Most people who use Apple products now probably never heard of Steve Jobs until he died.
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This is a pretty foolish rant you have here. Apps on the iphone started when people where jailbreaking there phones to get "apps for that". The iphone didnt have a market place at first. The jailbreaking community had Cydia which still has awesome apps that dont make it through into the app store. Steve Jobs wanted people to get apps they wanted with out having to tinker with there phones so the app store was born. Saying Steve Jobs doesnt listen to people is false. People wanted apps. He delivered. And only Andriod is fragmented. Iphones, Win Phone, and Blackberry's arent. Blackberry's I have always thought of were for the Business folk. Where RIM went wrong is trying to get younger ppl in there corral without having more apps. Acane app process? The app process works not jst on phones but game systems (i dont have to name them do i?) , blu-ray players, mp3 players, and car entertainment systems. If u dont like the arcane app system its here to stay and I sure as hell love it.
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I don't know of anyone who buys a Blackberry because of the OS, they buy it because of the service. Put the Blackberry services on an ANY stable OS and kick their own OS out the door. There's no real reason to create your own OS these days with so many open source solutions.

My prediction is that by the time Rim notices they have no marketshare and they should adopt a better solution they'll be bought by someone else and shut down ala. Palm.
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I think your advice was sound RIM should another MobileOS, but the odds of RIM doing that are very long. There is a huge legacy base of Blackberry devices, that are increasingly adopting Android devices, so if it would be to RIM's advantage to choose Android.

By the end of 2013, RIM's fate will be sealed. The enterprise/PC computing era is over and RIM need to change to survive or be a foot note of the era.
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