The BlackBerry 10 may be great -- and still fail

RIM, the company that invented the smartphone, has one last chance to matter in the revolution it started

[UPDATED 1/30/2013: Research in Motion, now renamed BlackBerry, was announced today. Full details here.]

Research in Motion invented the very idea of a smartphone, years before the word was coined. RIM's first BlackBerry, released in 1999, was more than a typical pager of the era. It lets executives, salespeople, physicians, and others do email over a pocketable device almost anywhere. Very quickly, the BlackBerry became a status symbol, showing who was important in a company.

The BlackBerry stayed at the top of the messaging heap for more than a decade, dethroned by the iPhone a few years after the Apple device's own 2007 debut. Last year, the BlackBerry saw a 30 percent drop in customers and faced the ignomy of vying with Microsoft's anemic Windows Phone platform for a distant third place in smartphone sales.

Tomorrow, years after it promised to do so, RIM will unveil in a New York City event the BlackBerry OS 10 and the smartphones that will run it. It's RIM's make-or-break moment, and what RIM shows will be the basis for its return to glory or for its final descent into irrelevance.

[ Explained: RIM's BES 10 road map. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's in-depth "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

How did the BlackBerry get here, and why might RIM -- after multiple failed efforts -- actually have a chance to resurrect itself wth BlackBerry OS 10?

The sad decline of the iconic BlackBerry
You can be forgiven for thinking BlackBerry OS 10 is old news, since RIM has been steadily reannouncing it since October 2011 in an excruciatingly long public tease. The length of that tease wasn't intentional; RIM had hoped to release BlackBerry OS 10 nearly a year ago, but the development of the replacement BlackBerry OS was much harder than the company had anticipated.

Even deciding to reinvent the BlackBerry took a long time, as RIM's old management team refused to believe that the iPhone, then Android were no fads but represented a real change in user needs. RIM bought QNX to harness the company's user interface technology in 2009, then implemented it in RIM's first tablet: the nearly unusable BlackBerry PlayBook tablet that debuted in April 2011 based on QNX.

The QNX-based PlayBook OS was a scary preview of RIM's promised new platform, as QNX was supposed to be the basis for a new generation of BlackBerry smartphones. But deep divisions in the company meant that RIM delivered BlackBerry OS 7 instead in summer 2011 -- itself delayed a year despite being a barely changed version of BlackBerry OS 6. The BlackBerry 7 devices flopped, pushing BlackBerry sales toward a strong decline that has yet to abate. BlackBerry sales now account for less than 5 percent of smartphone sales worldwide.

By fall 2011, RIM's founders finally left, clearing the way for new management to try to rescue the BlackBerry. Although new CEO Thorsten Heins initially portrayed the transition as a continuation of the past, the QNX-based BlackBerry 10 effort was back on -- now delayed a year to give RIM's engineers a realistic chance to succeed. RIM also tried to fix the PlayBook tablet, which it partially accomplished in February 2012 with an update to its QNX-based OS. However much Heins tried to calm the BlackBerry old guard that their beloved device would be maintained, he put in motion an effort to toss much of what the BlackBerry had been and reinvent it for the modern era.

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