I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the smartphone space.  It’s the most exciting space in tech today, and there are fantastic combinations of technology, brand and personalities.  Add to that the massive value of this market and you have a mega-spectacle.

RIM was not too long ago the undisputed leader in the smartphone market.  It was omnipresent in business and on prime-time TV and movies.  We even saw as recently as 2008 the newly elected President of the United States pushing very hard to keep his BlackBerry.  Epic stuff.

But much has changed.  The iPhone really did change everything.  This isn’t marketing hype, although I’m sure many at RIM point to Apple’s excellence at marketing as the reason for their current challenges.  But that is selling Apple short.  Apple really focused on the smartphone ecosystem, and the end-user experience.  Historically, they have been absolute leaders in user experience.  “Insanely great” would be a lame marketing gimmick if it were not backed by ground breaking product innovation.

The smartphone ecosystem is defined by the handset, the OS, the development environment and the online store.  Apple’s approach, which has once again recently been attacked by RIM, is the highly-controlled ‘Walled Garden’.  As long as you live inside the walls, life is good.  If the walls are too close together, then we revolt.  If we barely perceive there being walls, then we exult.

The iPhone hardware is clearly obsessed over by Apple inside and out.  But the primary criticism of the iPhone is the quality of the pure phone features.  The iPhone 4 is reportedly dropping more calls than the iPhone 3G/3GS.  The talents of the RIM RF engineers appears to be measurably better than those at Apple.  When RIM was a young company, they recognized the critical importance of battery and packet efficiency, and have excelled in this regard to this day.

The battle between iPhone and BlackBerry has been tough, but the entry of Google and Android to this war has had a striking impact.  Android is growing in the market faster than iPhone or BlackBerry.  Google’s strategy of being the OS-dealer and delivering a vast platform of capabilities in a modern operating system to a large population of mobile handset providers is working.  The iPhone (and the BlackBerry) are high-end, expensive devices.  The Android ecosystem has a broad range of handsets that reach across the spectrum of budgets.

Google is a disruptive entrant into the smartphone market.  Their end game is fundamentally different, and unique to every other participant.  They don’t want to sell hardware.  They don’t want to sell minutes, or bytes.  They want traffic, in the form of search.  Things like “what’s near me?” and “where is?” compliment the traditional “google search” traffic that Google has monetized spectacularly.

You could form a reasonable argument that eventually, the only profitable segment left in the smartphone market is the monetization of traffic.  And that’s exactly where Google lives today, and is betting huge for tomorrow.

So, what would I do if I was Mike Lazaridis for a day (or perhaps a month, because these things take time)?

I would:

1) Immediately adopt Android as the operating system for the BlackBerry family of products

2) Port the BES and handset messaging (email, BBM etc) capabilities to Android, and make those available, as premium/only available on BlackBerry hardware features

3)  Stop all work on PlayBook

Pretty radical?  Well, not really.

1) Adopting Android accomplishes 2 major objectives.  The first is eliminating a significant competitive threat.  Fighting a war on 2 fronts doesn’t end well.  See the Wikipedia entry on Germany/World War II.  RIM is great at several things, but the operating system is not one of them.  The QNX acquisition could have been useful had it been done 5+ years ago and leveraged on the BlackBerry.  Introducing a new operating system is going to be disruptive to the BlackBerry developers inside and outside the company.  Third party developers will have to choose.  They don’t have infinite amounts of time, money and patience, so they pick the platforms that deliver the greatest returns.  Ease of use, and economics run this machine.  BlackBerry is losing on both points here.  And a complete reset isn’t a nice thing to do to your friends.

The second major objective achieved by adopting Android is instant application (and thus developer) presence.  When I picked up a new BlackBerry last year, and couldn’t find the App World on it, I was mortified.  How the hell can you compete when you don’t even put the app store on the device?  RIM realized very late the importance of the 3rd party developer, and the intrinsic value users place on finding and buying fun new applications.  Using Android is instant street cred with a large and growing population of developers, and is a foundation to build great hardware under.

2) When you think about what RIM is really great at, 2 things come to mind.  Fantastic hardware with keyboards that are brilliant to type on, and unparalleled messaging.  Those things built RIM into the super-success story it is today.  The “CrackBerry” was/is all about messaging.  I’ve perceived what could be considered as annoyance that things like web browsing, rich media, and 3rd party application support were required to participate.  RIM has not lead in this areas, it has lagged dangerously.

If we go back to first principles, and the core IP the company was built upon, we see an enduring value, and significant differentiator across every other participant in the market.  Take their excellence in messaging, and bring it into Android as a “BlackBerry-only” capability.  You want to differentiate your Motorola or HTC Android phone with the BlackBerry?  Oh, yeah, you have BlackBerry capability on top of Android.  That will close deals. And having Google as a partner is a pretty potent combination.

3) The PlayBook was announced very early, and upon reflection, awkwardly.  I love the vision, and think the capabilities described are compelling.  But I don’t understand who really wants it, and it this has nothing to do with RIM’s core competency.  They are not a consumer electronics company.  And they’re entering a market that will quickly be saturated with major consumer electronics players.  And a huge number of them will be running…you guessed it, Android.  RIM is a large enterprise, but it’s not so large that they can afford to deflect the best and brightest resources off to this new venture.  The PlayBook will have Flash.  That’s great, but Android also has Flash.  So much for that as a differentiator.  If RIM adopted Android, then maybe there’s a play for an Enterprise tablet, but I’d still think very carefully about that before taking any of my ‘A’ players off of BlackBerry roadmap work.

Don’t make the already overburdened and loyal BlackBerry developers have to build or port his apps to another hardware form factor and operating system.  Show the developers some love, and they will repay you by making your platform do things you never imagined it could or would.  But you have to see them as valuable as your own developers, not as a remote contingent that will be happy with whatever you give them.

I can’t sing the praises of Android without voicing a major concern I have with it.  The complete punting by Google on the quality, and most importantly, the security of Google Android Marketplace applications is a massive timebomb that will eventually go off.  Apple has taken plenty of stick for being slow, onerous and at times obstinant  about what Apps they approve for their App Store.  But Google has taken a ‘the community will decide’ approach.  That may work at the macro level, but would you like to be one of the first few hundred consumers to mistakenly downloaded a fake Citibank Home Banking application?  I wouldn’t.

One other thing.  That company in Redmond.  They should have bought RIM a while ago.  It’s cheaper now, and maybe they still should.  I think that would be a shame for RIM, and a smart move for Microsoft.  They are in a much worse position in the smartphone market.  RIM has great IP that fits like a glove in the Exchange/Enterprise ecosystem, and would give Microsoft a desperately needed leap-ahead in the market.

But if RIM gets the next few moves right, they can reclaim their position at or near the top of the heap.

I’m never going to be “Mike for a day”, and I’m cheering for RIM.  They’ve been a source of local and national pride for years, and I have lots of smart friends working there.  On a recent flight to Montreal, I met a businessman from New Zealand and when I introduced myself I said “I’m from Waterloo, where the BlackBerry was invented”.  I have the privilege of being able to speak to lots of smart people everywhere about this space.  And after lots of discussion and lots of thoughts, these are the conclusions I’ve reached.

So that’s what I would do.  What would you do?

mJm

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Today, after months of broad anticipation, RIM announced its entry into the hot tablet market.  The device, called PlayBook, was announced at the BlackBerry Developer Conference in San Francisco. I watched the live Webcast as President and Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis made the big announcement.

BlackBerry PlayBook

First, let’s review the basic feature set:

  • 7-inch LCD, 1024 x 600, WSVGA, capacitive touch screen with full multi-touch and gesture support
  • BlackBerry Tablet OS with support for symmetric multiprocessing
  • 1 GHz dual-core processor
  • 1 GB RAM
  • Dual HD cameras (3 MP front facing, 5 MP rear facing), supports 1080p HD video recording
  • Video playback: 1080p HD Video, H.264, MPEG, DivX, WMV
  • Audio playback: MP3, AAC, WMA
  • HDMI video output
  • Wi-Fi – 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Connectors: microHDMI, microUSB, charging contacts
  • Open, flexible application platform with support for WebKit/HTML-5, Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Adobe Mobile AIR, Adobe Reader, POSIX, OpenGL, Java
  • Ultra thin and portable:
  • Measures 5.1″x7.6″x0.4″ (130mm x 193mm x 10mm)
  • Weighs less than a pound (approximately 0.9 lb or 400g)
  • RIM intends to also offer 3G and 4G models in the future.

The heart of the device is the ARM Cortex-A9 Processor, which I discovered to be the same family of processor that is in the heart of the iPad (and iPhone 4) A4 chip.  One of the most interesting capabilities of Apple’s A4 is its incredibly frugal use of battery power.  There has not been any mention by RIM of the expected battery life of the PlayBook, so hopefully they have good things to say here.

The PlayBook is smaller than most other tablets.  I’m not sure if this is good or bad.  With content consumption devices, I generally think larger is better – to a point.  I think the iPad is about as large as I’d want to go, and it’s a bit heavier than I’d like.  It’s interesting that RIM has gone smaller.  The device is still too big to fit in your pocket, so it’s not clear to me what the benefit is to this different form factor.

The video capabilities in the PlayBook are impressive.  Two HD cameras (one forward and one rear-facing) should enable high quality video chat capability.  Being able to drive full 1080P HD video through the HDMI port is very impressive.  During his keynote, Lazaridis stated you could drive 1080P out the HDMI port while watching different HD video on screen.  That’s pushing a lot of data for a tablet.  If you’re plugging your PlayBook into an HD monitor, then it’s likely you are able to plug it in to a power supply, so battery life isn’t an issue.  But I wonder what the battery life is like while watching a streamed 1080P movie.

The ability to use the PlayBook to connect to the Internet is provided through WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n) as well as secure Bluetooth.  The latter mode utilizes the BlackBerry you’re assumed to have, which essentially lets your PlayBook tether to the Internet through your BlackBerry.  When you connect using your BlackBerry, you’re basking in the safe environment provided via your BES server.

I believe you should be able to tether a PlayBook to any smartphone, including an iPhone.  I use my WiFi-only iPad in the wild by tethering it to my iPhone.  Of course, we all have to be careful how much data we pull down on these devices, lest we get a very nasty surprise in our monthly mobile bill.

The specs state that the PlayBook has 1GB of RAM.  There’s no mention of additional flash memory.  If the OS (with all the wonderful multimedia capabilities and apps) as well as the 3rd party apps and user content (movies, music) all have to live in 1GB, then things are going to get pretty crowded.  The iPad ships with 32GB and 64GB of flash.

There is also no mention of GPS capabilities in the PlayBook.  Perhaps it’s expected that your location will be delivered through your tethered BlackBerry.  But what happens when I’m sitting on the couch at home using WiFi and want to use location services to find out what movies are playing nearby?

One of the significant differentiators to the iPad (but not the Android-based tablet world) is the PlayBook’s full support of Adobe’s Flash.  I find myself of two minds about Flash.  When I surf with my iPad, the lack of Flash is often frustrating.  However, the #1 reason I have to kill and restart my Safari browser is because of a Flash-related problem.  Flash is fat, and lazy.  But it’s everywhere, and the HTML5 transition won’t completely replace it.  You absolutely notice it when it’s missing.

It will be interesting to see how RIM positions this Flash superiority relative to Apple.  Adobe is obviously a potentially strong partner for RIM in this market.  In typical Canadian fashion however, RIM described this benefit as being a “full web experience” instead of making more direct contrasts to the competition.

I’m most interested in the new operating system.  For years, I’ve heard, and to a limited extent experienced myself, the challenges of doing development for the BlackBerry.  There are a multitude of hardware devices to support.  Some are full keyboard, others not. Some are touchscreen, others not.  There are different screen sizes and resolutions.  And there are different OS versions to support across the handsets.  This makes life complicated for a developer who just wants to get his app widely deployed.

Say what you will about the Apple “Walled Garden”, but they have made life pretty damned easy for a developer.  There is the iPhone.  When Apple improves it, they do the heavy lifting for the developers by ensuring the ‘legacy’ apps run without modification on the new OS and hardware.  They don’t have the diverse user interface choices that BlackBerry developers face.  It’s just easier.  I think this focus on making the environment ‘easy’ has been instrumental in the massive adoption Apple gained upon the release of the first iPhone.

Now faithful BlackBerry developers have a new toy to play with.  And not just the hardware is different.  Short on the heels of launching BlackBerry OS6, the PlayBook is announced with a POSIX-compliant Unix-like operating system called QNX.  If you know what QNX is, then you’ll probably be impressed.  I am.  I like this OS, and just wish it was a choice RIM made in the 90s.  So what do you do if you want to have your BlackBerry “SuperApp” run on the PlayBook?  Well, I’m not sure because that hasn’t been disclosed.  Perhaps they’re discussing this at the Developer Conference this week.

The choices, as I see them are:

  1. Too bad, you need to re-write your application from scratch.
  2. Sorry, you need to make some changes, but it won’t be too onerous.
  3. The PlayBook has emulation that fully supports legacy BlackBerry Apps. It just works.

Clearly, applications work best when they’re designed to exploit the best capabilities of the platform. This is what we’re seeing in the iPad/iPhone ecosystem.  Apple has put significant effort into making sure most iPhone apps will run on the iPad, albeit with some UI compromises.

The next 12 months are going to be pretty exciting ones for those who follow the Smartphone and Tablet markets.  There is great focus and effort being invested by Apple, RIM, Google, HTC, Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and others.  I’m excluding Microsoft, because in the Mobile world, I consider them to be Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense.  You know, the one who goes through 99% of the movie not knowing he’s dead.

The result will most certainly be great advancements that will benefit all consumers.  But not everyone is going to come out of this battle as healthy as they entered it.

If the PlayBook helps to make the BlackBerry ecosystem more successful and sustainable, then I think it’s a fantastic move.  But I’m concerned about how this will play out given the challenges facing BlackBerry developers today.  If widening RIM’s focus to the tablet puts the core BlackBerry platform at increased risk, then it’s a dangerous distraction.

Embracing the Web Development model and making BlackBerry and PlayBook development less proprietary is a fantastic move.  Give developers access to the platform capabilities through APIs, and let them build Web Apps on top of them.  I’d like nothing better than to write my app once, and have it run on Android, iPhone and BlackBerry.

RIM has declared the PlayBook is the “BlackBerry Amplified”.  That’s a compelling vision, and there is much to celebrate.  But amplifiers have the ability to increase both the good and the bad in a signal.  I’m sure there are lots of smart people working in Waterloo to eliminate as much noise in that signal as possible.

It’s going to be very exciting to see how this all plays out.

mJm