BlackBerry reboot: What's in, what's out, and who should keep the faith

The BlackBerry as you know it is going away, to replaced with a new OS derived from the PlayBook tablet

[UPDATE 12/15/11: RIM announced that the debut of its rebooted Blackberry devices has been delayed until late 2012, and perhaps later.

[UPDATE 12/6/11: After losing a trademark dispute, RIM has renamed BBX to BlackBerry 10.]

2012 is the year that BlackBerry will rise phoenixlike from the ashes of Research in Motion's pile of denial or the year it will join other dead mobile platforms like Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and WebOS. The reason: RIM's plans to replace the BlackBerry OS with the BBX OS based on the QNX operating system it bought 18 months ago and used as the foundation of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet released last summer. The goal is to have one OS on both smartphones and tablets, as Apple has always done with iOS and Google has achieved this fall with Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich."

You can see why this could go either way. The first PlayBook's hardware and software were subpar, and the ostensible QNX advantage was unclear, so the product quickly fell out of consumers' interest. BBX OS is based on the QNX-derived PlayBook OS, which does not bode well for the next-generation BlackBerry tablets or smartphones. And the fact that the rebooted BlackBerry platform was quickly delayed to late 2012 suggests that RIM is having trouble reworking QNX for its smartphones.

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The market was certainly not impressed with the PlayBook. From what I hear, perhaps 250,000 have PlayBooks have been sold (RIM said it shipped 700,000 units as of September 1), compared to 47 million iPads sold to customers per Gartner's estimates. Sales of the new BlackBerry OS 7 smartphones to individuals have also been low, as customers realized that beyond faster hardware and a better browser, they're the same old-school BlackBerry.

But users don't want an old-school BlackBerry. As a friend of mine who's been CIO at several large enterprises and now consults to CIOs said last week, "Most CIOs who I talk to are abandoning them."

However, my conversations with Alec Saunders, RIM's very new VP for developer relations, hint that maybe this time RIM will deliver a real change, and BBX OS will not be a disappointingly slight update to PlayBook OS -- in the way that the HP TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 was little different than the previous WebOS 2.0 beyond its support of larger tablet screens. Saunders used to be marketing VP at QNX, then left to pursue his own startup (Iotum, which developed the CalliFlower voice services for social networking), and went to RIM this summer as a consultant. On Sept. 28, several developer execs suddenly left RIM in an apparent shakeup, and Saunders became VP of developer relations.

He has the advantages of not being too close to the old RIM culture and of coming in with new energy and perspective. Of course, he could also be naive about what can really be done at hidebound RIM. Still, it was the first conversation I've had with a RIM executive in years who wasn't stuck in a obsolete context. Less than a week after RIM promised at its developer conference that the PlayBook 2.0 OS was imminent, Saunders blew the whistle and said it was not yet ready and would not ship until it was -- a refreshing if painful dose of reality that bodes well for how BBX is being managed.

What is in store for the BlackBerry reboot of 2012 (if that even occurs), when the BlackBerry OS is supposed to be retired and the PlayBook OS made strong? Let me walk you through what it means to developers and users. That way, you can figure out if you want to keep the faith until the reboot arrives or jump to iOS, Android, or Windows Phone 7 instead.

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