Can BlackBerry survive the perfect storm of iPhone, Android, and now iPad?

Users are abandoning BlackBerry in droves -- but some hope remains that RIM won't sink

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Why RIM may not get sunk in the perfect storm
It would be easy to conclude that RIM is a walking-dead company, with no future in smartphones -- following Nokia and Microsoft into mobile irrelevance. But although I believe RIM's glory days are in the past, I'm not so sure it will disappear.

There are a few signs that RIM is making real efforts to be relevant in the new mobile world and might actually deliver. After watching RIM for several years ignore the changes that the iPhone represented and then ship obviously doomed-from-the-start devices like the BlackBerry Storm and pretend they were a serious competitor, I'd been ready to give up on RIM.

The BlackBerry Torch 9800, unveiled this summer, was the first indication that RIM might finally accept the premise of the iPhone as the new mobile generation. It's by no means perfect, but it is a worthwhile competitor to the iPhone, as InfoWorld's comparative review has shown. Today, there are two strong enterprise-class smartphones available: the iPhone and the Torch. If you need elevated security levels, the Torch can deliver them and provide a good app, media, and Web environment in addition to the BlackBerry's traditional email strength.

What makes the Torch a real smartphone is its new BlackBerry OS 6. RIM needs to release that operating system to at least its BlackBerry Bold and Storm models ASAP, so its large existing customer base has a reason to stick with BlackBerry once their contracts run out. RIM promised this past summer it would upgrade older BlackBerrys to OS 6, but it has not done so. And RIM cannot tell me what models it will upgrade and when -- not a good sign.

Part of the issue is that the carriers dictate what runs on their networks, so each has to decide if they'll allow the upgrade. Carriers aren't really concerned about their devices having a consistent operating system or being part of a platform (like a PC); they think of smartphones as one-off fashion devices -- a view they've long held of cell phones. That carrier control is one reason why Android devices have a mishmash of OS versions. Apple didn't give the carriers the power to decide on OS upgrades, and it's time for RIM to take that power for itself as well. After all, like Apple, RIM makes its own devices, so it can do its own certification. If the carriers can trust Apple, they can trust RIM.

If RIM can get BlackBerry OS 6 out to its existing customer base soon -- by February -- it could stave off many BlackBerry defections. And finally having a consistent operating system across devices would let Web and app developers create compelling websites and apps for the BlackBerry. Right now, the fragmentation among BlackBerry devices and the wide variability in the standards they support keeps developers away. Even the fragmented Android OS is more together as a platform when it comes to website and app design.

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