WebOS and BlackBerry are running out of time: What can they do?

RIM's slow slide and WebOS's quick plunge into obscurity need to be reversed this spring -- or not at all

It's crunch time for Research in Motion and Hewlett-Packard. The Android mania at the recent CES 2011 show and the hubbub surrounding the Verizon iPhone 4 last week (and bloggers' renewed attention on iPad 2 rumors) say it all: When it comes to mobile devices, only Google's Android and Apple's iOS matter. Customer sentiment bears that out as well. Recent data shows Android is now the most popular smartphone platform in the United States, followed closely by iOS. Throughout the world, these two platforms are displacing the former (often local) leaders, much like Windows PCs did nearly three decades ago.

As mobile devices slowly but inexorably take the place of the PC, this leadership matters even more. We could easily see a world within 5 to 10 years where Apple and Google are the key OS vendors instead of Microsoft, and mobile hardware makers such as HTC and Motorola Mobility replace Dell and Hewlett-Packard as the major hardware providers. Already, mobile devices are starting to cause PCs' market share to drop -- and Windows appears poised to fall below the 90 percent threshold any day now.

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Nokia and Microsoft have already fatally blown it, what with Nokia's confusing and shifting -- and unrealized -- strategies around Symbian and MeeGo, and Microsoft's ridiculously limited Windows Phone 7 and unspoken admission at CES that it has no viable tablet technology. In mobile, they're dead; get over it and move on.

That leaves RIM and HP, both of which are preparing for major moves this spring intended to propel them back into the mobile market. WebOS all but disappeared from view for the last nine months, after HP bought its creator, Palm. RIM introduced its first viable modern smartphone, the BlackBerry Torch, last summer and previewed its BlackBerry-tethered mini-tablet, the PlayBook, in September. But it has not followed up to modernize the rest of its product line, nor even to port its new BlackBerry OS 6 to its popular messaging-oriented BlackBerry Bold and Curve devices as it promised.

RIM's PlayBook looks like an iffy bet; the Dakota may be its only hope
A couple months ago, I wrote that RIM could probably carve out a place as the No. 3 smartphone platform by focusing on specialty tasks that the more general-purpose Android and iOS do not. I may have been too optimistic.

RIM's glacial pace in modernizing its product portfolio and their underlying technology was already a worry, but as the pace of innovation in the iOS and Android camps continues to accelerate (technojunkies are abuzz over the forthcoming Android 2.4 "Ice Cream" and Android 3.0 "Honeycomb," as well as iOS 4.3), it's very likely that RIM will be lapped several more times by the platforms that have already beaten it in the market.

I also get the sense that the PlayBook will be a flop. RIM has given out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beta units for testing to financial services and other conservative firms. What I hear -- admittedly secondhand -- is that it has little compelling utility. The PlayBook is a Wi-Fi-only device, a decision RIM made to ensure data security and appeal to its traditional customers. Thus, corporations and government agencies can assure that users can't access or share data over 3G networks, unless they tether the PlayBook to a BlackBerry, through which the IT departments can impose strict data management policies.

That strategy essentially limits the PlayBook to a small subset of organizations, making it a niche product off the bat. Worse, it's a niche product tied to another item rapidly becoming a niche product: the BlackBerry itself, whose corporate market share is also plummeting as users switch to iPhones and Androids when their BlackBerry contracts expire.

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