BlackBerry 10: What RIM Needs to Succeed

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Research in Motion

Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry phones, won’t give up on the smartphone market without a fight.

RIM is regrouping for a big comeback push with BlackBerry 10, whose first smartphones will debut in late 2012. This week, the company showed an early glimpse of the operating system, with a new CEO at the helm who knows BlackBerry 10 needs to be flawless.

“We’re taking our time to make sure we get this right,” CEO Thorsten Heins said at the company’s BlackBerry World conference.

(MORE: RIM’s BlackBerry 10 Announcement Is a Tease, and That’s Okay)

Instead of playing catch-up with the iPhone and Android, BlackBerry 10 has its own novel features, and it bears little resemblance to RIM’s older operating systems. Its virtual keyboard aims to be as fast as the physical keys of yesteryear’s BlackBerry phones, with auto-complete suggestions that appear directly above the letters you might type. Its built-in camera captures a handful of shots before you snap the shutter, improving your odds of getting the perfect photo. When a phone call comes in, the contact name swoops down in front of the app you’re using, so you can answer or dismiss the call with a flick of your thumb.

The tech industry and tech press have been tough on RIM lately, but BlackBerry 10 has piqued their interest. CNet’s Marguerite Reardon wonders whether RIM is getting its mojo back, while NPD analyst Ross Rubin seems convinced of it, as long as the company’s demos are the real thing. Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg was encouraged by RIM’s focus on “details and not just speeds and feeds,” as proven by BlackBerry 10’s camera feature. GigaOM’s Kevin Tofel is cautiously optimistic, saying that the platform is “exactly what RIM needed to deliver and looks fantastic.”

(MORE: A BlackBerry 10 Smartphone, Lovingly Rendered)

So RIM has the tech world’s collective ear once again. That’s a start, but even if BlackBerry 10 is excellent–a big assumption given RIM’s tendency to overpromise–the company still needs to deliver in a few other areas to have a chance at success:

Make Killer Hardware

Good design is one of the main reasons Nokia’s Windows Phones are getting lots of attention, and arguably a big reason why Apple’s iPhone is the most popular handset on the market. RIM can’t afford to debut BlackBerry 10 on clunky hardware that reminds shoppers of its outdated smartphones. Yes, the company will build BlackBerry 10 devices with physical keyboards, but I hope they’ll take a backseat to all-touch designs.

The good news is that RIM is handing out classy-looking “Dev Alpha” phones to developers this week. The phone has a 4.2-inch, 1280-by-768 resolution display and a design that takes after the BlackBerry PlayBook. Although these test phones aren’t indicative of a finished product–they’re simply meant for app development–they show that RIM’s on the right track.

(MORE: Poor RIM Renames BBX ‘BlackBerry 10′ Due to Trademark Woes)

Win Back Developers

A smartphone isn’t worth much without lots of great apps. That’s no secret, but it’s just now starting to sink in for RIM. As Engadget reports, RIM will invest $100 million to build BlackBerry’s app selection, including incentives for developers who create quality apps. For these certified developers, RIM will guarantee a $10,000 payout on any app, provided it generates at least $1,000 on its own.

But RIM’s not the only one offering cash to app makers. Microsoft reportedly finances development for Windows Phone versions of popular apps, which would otherwise cost between $60,000 and $600,000 to make, the New York Times reports. Although the Windows Phone Marketplace has a decent app selection–it passed the 50,000 submission mark last December–the hottest new apps rarely land on Windows Phone at the same time as the iPhone or Android. RIM will be competing with Microsoft to buy developers’ attention, and even then, its app store may still have holes.

Win Back Wireless Carriers

Winning the hearts and minds of consumers and app developers isn’t enough. RIM also needs to convince wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon that BlackBerry is still relevant. That may be an uphill battle now that AT&T is throwing lots of weight behind Windows Phone, and Verizon is also eyeing Windows Phone as an alternative to the iPhone and Android. As Microsoft learned during the early days of Windows Phone, getting wireless carriers to sell a device isn’t enough. If retailers aren’t promoting it, or their employees are pushing users toward other options, sales will go nowhere.

RIM’s BlackBerry 10 tease is a fine first step. It got tech enthusiasts listening. But there’s still a lot more work that RIM must do.

MORE: Why the BlackBerry Is All Thumbs

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