The BlackBerry is about to change forever. For about a year now Research In Motion has talked about its next line of BlackBerry devices, and we recently caught a glimpse of the future. The BlackBerry London looks like no BlackBerry we’ve ever seen. In fact, given the top and bottom attachments, it looks more like a portable gaming system than a smartphone. But a smartphone it is, and it’s going to either make or break the BlackBerry brand. The only catch is that we might not know for another year what kind of impact it will have.
After the original photo release, Boy Genius Report added a disheartening point to the rumors: the new smartphone, codename BlackBerry London*, won’t drop until the third quarter — perhaps late in the third quarter. That means we’re nearly a year away from seeing how BlackBerry will save its smartphone business. It leads to a sobering question, at least for the BlackBerry faithful: will that be too little, too late?
*Every BlackBerry model starts as a unique codename and then moves onto a more generic name — Bold, Curve, Torch — with a call number. That’s an outdated and confusing way to name phones. We’ll stick with the codenames here for differentiation purposes.
Without hands-on experience it’s difficult to determine what kind of device RIM will release with the London. We can, however, use recent history to color our expectations. Just this year RIM has released a number of new BlackBerry devices, including an entire line of traditional BlackBerry smartphones, plus the PlayBook tablet. They were, to the surprise of some, commendably solid in the hardware department.
The PlayBook, while released as an incomplete device and one that does little good for non-BlackBerry users, has remained a physical specimen. RIM planned ahead with this one, equipping the PlayBook with a dual-core processor and a high-resolution screen that would last for quite a while. Indeed, while there will be more powerful tablets on the market come February, when RIM is scheduled to release a significant tablet OS update, the PlayBook will still hold its own physically. It won’t be top of the line, but it won’t restrict users in many ways at all. That certainly bodes well.
The BlackBerry 7 smartphones also provide some positive feedback. The London might look nothing like the more traditional BlackBerry Montana, but if it follows the Montana in terms of hardware it could be a positive for RIM. The Montana is by far the most powerful BlackBerry smartphone to date, with a processor that can actually handle the tasks assigned it without lagging. That was always a bugaboo of old BlackBerry models: slow, outdated hardware. While the Montana doesn’t have the best physical specs on the market, it does take giant steps forward. It gives hope that RIM will take even further steps with the London.
The key, then, will be creating the London with an anticipation of what the smartphone market will look like in August, 2012, not November, 2011. A dual-core 1.2GHz processor might do for now, but 10 months from now that could all change. RIM has to be savvy in predicting what kind of hardware will attract the kind of users it seeks for its new smartphone line. If they can get out ahead of the pack, rather than play catch-up, they have a chance. The hope for BlackBerry fans is that the late release date signals that they are taking every measure to ensure a top of the line device.
Of course, hardware hasn’t been the only factor holding back the BlackBerry line. Software, too, has plagued the Waterloo juggernaut. They’ve taken drastic measures to help fix that: easing the process by which developers create apps, adopting HTML5 in place of its Java Development Environment, and even making it easy for Android developers to port over their apps. In the next 10 months they have time to build a robust app library for the London’s launch. That will be a critical factor in the new platform’s success.
When discussing the latest BlackBerry rumors with a friend, who is a loyal BlackBerry user, he wondered if the next line of BlackBerry models would suffer from the same issue as the old. Namely, he wondered if the next BlackBerry would again play catch-up rather than get out ahead of the market. While RIM doesn’t have a recent history of leapfrogging the competition, they have a real opportunity here. They’re clearly taking their time, as evidenced by such a late release date for a make-or-break device. It signals that they’re ensuring a near-perfect device. If they can do that and get ahead of the market, there might be a future for the BlackBerry yet.