It's time to start paying attention to RIM again. For innovation's sake
It's time to stop making fun of RIM. Seriously. Full stop. After years of devolving into a laughingstock of a tech company, Research in Motion is somehow finding its way back to the brink of relevance, and will soon embark on a make-or-break mission that just a couple of months ago would've sounded impossible: RIM wants you to like it again. And I think it has a shot.
To be fair, the Canada-based phone-maker hasn't exactly made it easy for you, the consumer, to cheer the company onward, especially with the smothering shadows cast by Google and Apple. In fact, RIM's downward spiral presents a compelling case study for boneheaded decision-making and public relations thoughtlessness. There were the endless delays (BlackBerry 10 was first teased in 2011); the embarrassing incident in which two company executives got too drunk and had to be restrained on a plane bound for China; the recent layoffs that some insiders called "inhumane." Depressing article after depressing article only seemed to crescendo the BlackBerry's death knell, replete with graphs and lifeless arrows all pointing the same direction. Down.
This week, RIM announced that after more than a year of product delays — egregious, considering new Android phones are released days apart — a line of new budget-friendly BlackBerrys sporting a new operating system, BB10, are ready to be formally unveiled (not shipped) at the end of January. (Note: Like many users, I made the switch from a BlackBerry Curve to an iPhone two years ago. It is one of the best decisions I've ever made. And no, I couldn't care less about the physical keyboard.)
That's something to be excited about. Over at Gizmodo, there's a surprisingly neat walkthrough of some of the new features BB10 will use. At first glance it looks like the baffling stepchild bred from a weird love triangle between Android, iOS, and a grizzled old Windows XP.
Yet the redesigned OS has some good features and flourishes worth noting: The ability to minimize apps that run simultaneously. The ability to keep your finger pressed down to slide panes side-to-side (handy for peeking around). A well-spaced, digital keyboard that skeuomorphically draws inspiration from BlackBerry's celebrated keypads. The easy-to-set alarm clock is unlike anything we've seen yet. The phone's camera looks intuitive and snappy with some smart editing features. Cosmetically speaking it's not the prettiest UI in the world, but it's not supposed to be. As a business device, BB10-equipped phones will be all about cold, mechanical efficiency. And you can bet Android and Apple are taking notes.
No, BlackBerry 10 won't change the world like the iPhone did in 2007. But it doesn't have to. The reason we should be rooting for RIM is because, quite honestly, it's beginning to look more and more like the current duopoloy of iOS and Android isn't going anywhere, not even with Microsoft's tile-based Windows Phones beginning to surge. According to ComScore, the two operating systems have a stranglehold on the smartphone market, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all devices.
The sad truth about all the legal mudslinging between Apple and Android licensees like Samsung is that patents matter right now, whether the system is broken or not. "We think that these patent wars are not helpful to consumers," Google public policy director Pablo Chavez said in August last year, lamenting the litigiousness that's plaguing the world of mobile technology. "They're not helpful to the marketplace. They're not helpful to innovation," he added.
But competition is.
We need RIM and Windows to keep the current leaders on their toes, to push innovation forward, albeit from behind. Whether it's a just a new way to swipe or organize an application is inconsequential. Variety breeds stronger victors.
I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize RIM. We should. It's our duty to keep the companies making our gadgets honest. But BlackBerry, like Microsoft and the Windows Phone, is in the unique but difficult position of providing phone-buyers with something fresh but familiar. New, but not quite groundbreaking.
We had our fun, but it's time to start rooting for companies like RIM, Windows, and others experimenting with new ideas instead of kicking them when they fail. This would give consumers a voice in the one forum that matters — the marketplace. That's why, against the odds, I'm pulling for the new batch of BlackBerrys to succeed. I hope I'm not alone.
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