Research in Motion, the company behind the BlackBerry, stands at a crossroads. Its smartphone once ruled the market, but in recent years, it has ceded most of the pie to Android and Apple (RIM reportedly holds about 19% of the market, in a steadily downward trend). Last week, the limping giant was further crippled by service outages that frustrated customers across the globe. Griping about the smartphone became a sort of Twitter blood sport. To placate its users, RIM showered them with free apps.
And so it was with a sense of great stakes that developers converged on a Research in Motion conference on Tuesday (the three-day conference concludes today). Some were calling it “the most vital in RIM’s history”–a do-or-die moment. At the conference, executives apologized for the outage, but quickly moved on to what they saw as happier tidings: BlackBerry would be introducing a new operating system, BBX, to power its next generation of smartphones and tablets. BBX, they explained, would be a sort of amalgamation between the traditional BlackBerry OS that has powered its smartphones, and the QNX system that it acquired last year and that powers its iPad “competitor,” the PlayBook.
The main problem, though, to judge from this Wall Street Journal report, is that the RIM conference has been heavy on talk, light on action. As RIM’s execs excitedly extolled the virtues of the BBX system, they had relatively little to actually show for it. They didn’t demonstrate the OS on a prototype. They didn’t give out free tablets with the OS, like Microsoft did at its Build conference. They didn’t even give anything like a concrete release date for products that would use it. Confronted about the lack of details, BlackBerry’s Ronjon Nag told the WSJ, “we don’t want to confuse developers necessarily,” as though speaking of 7-year-olds beginning to wonder about Santa Claus.
Developers at the conference were reportedly disappointed. “If they had introduced a BBX device that would be ready to go tomorrow, people would be jumping up and down…But they didn’t, so that was a bit frustrating,” said one. (To be fair, we did get some details: BBX will offer 100 open source libraries, will support HTML5, and will include a graphics framework called Cascade UI. Still, a press release announcing these details isn’t the same thing as letting developers loose on an actual, functional OS.)
One wonders, even, if the world would be greatly impoverished if one smartphone platform were to bite the dust. One of the most interesting findings to come out of the three-day BlackBerry outage was that roads became safer for a spell. In Dubai, the traffic accident rate plummeted by 20%; in Abu Dhabi, by 40%. Cops attributed it, at least in part, to the fact that fewer people could text-and-drive.
Meanwhile, RIM’s own decline is something like a slow-moving car wreck. It needed to pull off a Hail Mary at its conference; it doesn’t appear to have done so.