Microsoft's missteps give BlackBerry a new shot at life

Windows Phone 8's shortcomings leave a market space that RIM can reclaim

For a good year, conventional wisdom has said that Research in Motion's BlackBerry platform would die some time in 2013, due to several years of self-inflicted wounds. The much-delayed BlackBerry 10 platform, now due in February, would come much too late to matter, most analysts (myself included) argued. On its third try, we believed, Microsoft's Windows Phone would soak up the shrinking part of the smartphone market not claimed by smartphones running Google's Android or by Apple's iPhone. After all, Microsoft often takes three times to get it right, and Windows Phone 8's debut this month meant BlackBerry 10's arrival would simply be too late, even if it ended up being a good platform.

But Windows Phone 8 is not a compelling mobile platform. Yes, it finally adds basic enterprise security compatibility, but it remains a simplistic mobile operating system that suffers from many UI flaws under its sleek tile-based exterior. It might appeal to people who don't want a complex device, but you have to wonder how much of that population would want any smartphone, especially given the $30 to $50 monthly data cost of a smartphone. And let's be honest, Android and iOS are not that complex out of the box.

[ Discover RIM's plans for BlackBerry 10, and learn how it will transition its BES management tool for the new BlackBerry OS. | Read InfoWorld's review of Windows Phone 8. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. ]

I want to be crystal clear: I have no idea whether BlackBerry 10 will be a smartphone platform that people want. The demos suggest something nice, but that's what demos are designed to do. RIM has kept a very tight rein on what it's shown, so no independent observer really knows how the platform as a whole hangs together. RIM's history with its two previous savior products -- BlackBerry OS 7 and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet -- doesn't provide much encouragement.

But there's a chance that BlackBerry 10 will be good and compelling to those not wed to Android (which accounts for about 70 percent of smartphones sold) and the iPhone (which accounts for most of the rest). If it is, those nonaligned users could easily gravitate to it. If you look at the smartphone sales stats, you'll see that BlackBerry accounts for 2 to 4 percent of smartphones sold, depending on the market and who's counting; Windows Phone 7.x accounts for about the same percentage. I simply don't see Windows Phone 8 increasing Microsoft's market share.

BlackBerry 10 should appeal to the BlackBerry diehards, and it may appeal to the Windows Phone 7 crowd who discovered this year that their smartphones can't run Windows Phone 8 and will need a new device to get a more modern mobile OS. That creates the opening for a new device to run something else. There's also a portion of the Android market that is weakly aligned; whereas Samsung has created a strong following à la Apple, the more consumer-oriented HTC has not done so, and many of its sales seem to be based on "free" devices sold under carrier contracts. For those that chose "free" rather than Android specifically, a revitalized BlackBerry could hold appeal, assuming a low-cost model is available.

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