"Not dead yet" could well be the new BlackBerry marketing theme, as the world prepares to hear about two new BlackBerry 10 smartphones to be announced next Wednesday.
Days before the announcement, there is fairly wide disagreement among analysts and developers over whether Research In Motion can stop the dramatic decline of its BlackBerry phones. The BlackBerry was the market leader until the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and Android phones after that. Its market share fell to 10 percent in 2010 and has dwindled to 5 percent today.
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In advance of the event, specifications and photos have been widely leaked of the new touchscreen and qwerty-keyboard versions of BlackBerry smartphones, but RIM hasn't confirmed many of the details.
According to unconfirmed reports, the touchscreen version, dubbed the Z10, will have a 4.2-inch display, 1,280x768 resolution and 16GB of internal storage. It will also include a Snapdragon processor, an 8-megapixel rear camera and Near-Field Communications technology (useful for mobile payments). Moreover, the models available from Verizon Wireless will be able to run on 4G LTE cellular networks.
Less is known about the smaller qwerty version, known as the X10. With this model, RIM is acknowledging its loyal following of users, among 80 million overall globally, who prefer a physical keyboard.
RIM officials confirmed that thousands of prerelease BlackBerry 10 devices have been tested by corporations, which have been the mainstay of the company's customer base, even as BlackBerry's global market share has dwindled to 5 percent, according to Gartner. Meanwhile Android has captured 65 percent of the global smartphone market and the iPhone has about 21 percent.
Analysts who have tried the devices offered some promising predictions. "The new BB10 offers the best [user experience] on the market -- not perfect, but certainly a rival to the iPhone 5, with even greater performance," said Gartner analyst Phillip Redman in a blog post this week entitled "RIM begins its comeback year with BES 10 launch."
In an interview, Redman said that BB10 devices won't surpass Apple or Android devices, but, he added, "I think they will beat Windows Phone." Moreover, he predicted that RIM will "market this like nothing before, [with] much of the future of the company depending on the launch."
In contrast, Citigroup financial analyst Jim Suva reminded clients in a note that the pre-announcement optimism for BlackBerry 10 devices is not necessarily an indicator of how well the phones will sell. "We remind investors that actual sell-through matters to determine the true financial impact that the new OS and hardware will have on the company's financials, especially in an increasingly competitive environment," Suva said.
Michael Mullany, CEO of Sencha, a company that is an HTML5 development partner of RIM on the BlackBerry 10 platform, remains optimistic. "We think BB 10 has a good shot at re-igniting RIM sales," he said.
In an interview, Mullany said the prerelease Z10 touchscreen model that developers have been testing offers "incredible performance for the browser inside -- it will be a market leader for HTML5."
RIM also said it has seen heavy developer interest in building apps for BlackBerry 10, with 15,000 apps published in the BlackBerry World app store in two days.
Previous browsers in BlackBerry smartphones have been a sore spot for RIM, and Mullany remarked that the BlackBerry Torch smartphone, which was released two years ago was a disappointment. "When we got the Torch," he recalled, "we scratched our heads and said, 'Are they serious?'" But Mullany also said that RIM has not "irreparably harmed itself," because mobile consumers "have very short memories." He said the Z10 has impressive speeds for scrolling content and responds quickly to touches.
Mullany said he's not privy to RIM's plans to market the Z10 or X10, but he noted that RIM has faced difficulties in the past in trying to attract consumers to BlackBerry devices after years of serving the needs of working professionals and enterprise IT shops.
In recent years, RIM relied on rock star Bono and the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas to promote the BlackBerry brand among consumers. But even stellar marketing could not correct a problematic product like the Torch.
"I feel this [Z10] is a very robust consumer device," Mullany said. "It's not a business-only device for sure. It will do well in the consumer and prosumer market."
Mullany said he foresees the user interface of the Z10 working well with professional sports apps favored by the male professionals who make up an important demographic for the BlackBerry. Major League Baseball said this week that it plans to bring its At Bat app to the BlackBerry 10 phones for the start of the 2013 season.
"This is a market-leading device that's as fast as iOS and with more features," Mullany said. "RIM's done a fantastic job of GPU [graphics processing unit] integration. On the HTML5 side, it's a great deployment platform for apps. "
Acceptance of the new BlackBerry 10 phones by consumers is hard to predict, but some enterprise users have come forward. Oliver Bussmann, CIO at business software maker SAP, said in an interview at the International CES trade show earlier this month that he had seen prerelease versions of the X10 qwerty phones. He said the phones will be appreciated by many of the 16,000 BlackBerry users at SAP who like a physical keyboard.
"SAP will continue to offer its employees choice via corporate-owned and personal devices across Android, iOS and BlackBerry platforms and that will include BB 10," Bussmann said via email. "We will test the BB 10 devices and make them available for internal usage soon."
Bussmann said it's important for enterprise IT to be open to BlackBerry 10 and other platforms. "It is imperative that IT decision-makers implement enterprise class apps that replicate the same kind of experience that consumers have become used to -- easy, intuitive and beautiful -- while also granting access from any device platform and adhering to security requirements," he said.
Overall, SAP supports about 50,000 smartphone and tablet users globally.
Enterprises are expected to be interested in a dual personality feature in the BlackBerry 10 operating system called BlackBerry Balance, analysts said. The Balance technology will allow two user profiles to exist separately on the same phone for work and personal data, but it will also allow a user to mingle emails from both profiles in a single stream.
The advantage will be that if an employee leaves a company, the IT shop can use the new BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 software to wipe off all the mission-critical work data, leaving the user's personal data on the device.
BlackBerry Balance, and the fact that BES 10 allows management of Android and iOS as well as BlackBerry devices, will help "stem some of the flow of BES removals" by enterprises, Redman and other analysts said.
Still, the traditional features that RIM has focused on with enterprises, such as security and management capabilities for IT, are expected to take a back seat to the user interface, browser and overall product appeal of the new phones.
"RIM has a lot riding on next week's announcements -- maybe the future of the company," Redman said. "It will be an interesting year ahead."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "Can new smartphones rekindle the BlackBerry fire?" was originally published by Computerworld.