Observations From BlackBerry World 2012

As I headed off to BlackBerry World 2012 – an annual rite of passage for the RIM faithful (enterprise customers, carriers, developers, integrators) – I was curious to see the tone that RIM would set and the themes they would focus on at their confab.

As an industry participant in the frenetic mobile world, I know all too well how the wave of popular opinion can swing a company from hero to zero, so I wanted to see some key elements at the show.

Here were my expectations heading in:

  1. RIM needed to show off BlackBerry 10 and prove that its complete overhaul of the legacy BlackBerry system was worth waiting for and developing to – messages particularly important for the developer community and to the millions of BlackBerry fans who don’t want to switch to a different operating system (OS).
  2. RIM would demonstrate focus. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the company would benefit the most from differentiated innovation.
  3. No overpromising – RIM needed to execute flawlessly.

I had a chance to attend the keynote, talk to many joint AT&T and RIM customers, and speak with RIM leaders in forums both public and private.

So, how did they do? Well, I’m happy to report that they did pretty well against some of my expectations heading into the show.

First, despite the lack of flashy handset announcements, I was actually enthused by the sober and focused tone struck by new CEO Thorsten Heins. His keynote (though not without some pizzazz) for the most part stuck with showing the tangible progress on BlackBerry 10, the must-have and can’t-wait-for features that fired up the faithful and an overwhelming focus on developers to convince them that their apps could be written easily and, most importantly, monetized on the new platform.

Meet the “BlackBerry People”

RIM did not try to produce a clone of other OSs, nor did it take a path of retreating just to the enterprise (which some analysts had called for but that I thought was flawed in an age of consumerization).  RIM’s approach indicated focus, but was not as simplistic as consumer or enterprise. Its core efforts honed in on “BlackBerry People” – defined as hyper-networked, connected individuals, driven to get things done.  Inveterate multi-taskers and ultra-engaged mobile device users – please note – you may just be a BlackBerry Person, whether you knew it or not!

The glimpse into BlackBerry 10 features certainly built upon RIM’s strengths and the requirements of the aforementioned BlackBerry People. Things that stuck with me: a real continuation of the legendary BlackBerry keyboard, promising a virtual keyboard in a full touch-screen device, while still offering the traditionalists a full keyboard in another execution.  A new “gee whiz” time warp feature on the camera, which allows users to roll back or forward on pieces of the image to get the perfect shot (think re-opening the closed eyes of a photo subject).

The people who taught us how to type with thumbs also introduced a new trademark gesture called the “BlackBerry glance,” which played to the multi-taskers. You’ll be able to “glance” the note you’re typing off to the side to see what other notifications are coming in, without exiting the current application and launching something else.

RIM also showcased Mobile Fusion, successor to the vaunted Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) that put BlackBerry devices in the network of hundreds of thousands of enterprises.   Embracing the trend toward mixed-OS and cloud environments, RIM announced a roadmap to support non-RIM devices and cloud-based or hosted versions of its historically on-premises servers.

Next Steps Forward

As for execution – well, the jury is still out. RIM did not overpromise. Its BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha units, handed out to developers at the show, are admittedly still works in progress. And we have yet to see any concrete dates for device launches.

I do think RIM rolled out a worthy OS upgrade, which is innovative, differentiated and builds on BlackBerry’s heritage. RIM’s leaders appear to have a clear understanding of the core issues that they must tackle and a defined path to go about doing so. They still have a loyal following in the enterprise segment, as well as close relationships with carriers and other members of the mobile ecosystem.

They also have the advantage of continuing to gain subscribers for their lower cost handsets in emerging markets, where they have a healthy and growing business. Finally, let’s not forget that RIM, unlike any other handset manufacturing, has a recurring service relationship with more than 77 million BlackBerry users and embedded BES servers in hundreds of thousands of enterprises.

Each quarter without the new BlackBerry 10 handsets, however, will bring new challenges and new competitors who will eat away at the base of loyal users and widen the gulf with developers. Each quarter without a full release of the cross-carrier Mobile Fusion solution will allow mobile device management startups to nibble away at the embedded BES base.

Ultimately, it all comes down to flawless execution over the next year on what they unveiled here! RIM’s loyal customers, partners and carriers are rooting for its success, and, for the sake of innovation and competition, I hope they can pull it off!

What did you think of RIM’s announcements this week?  What caught your eye?  What do you think it will take for RIM to succeed?
Abhi Ingle Big Data and Advanced Solutions Senior Vice President AT&T About Abhi