New BlackBerry platform promising, but consumers want devices

RIM's unveiling of its new operating system, BBX, on Tuesday went some way toward restoring industry confidence — but the company didn't immediately have much tangible to offer consumers.

RIM unveils BBX operating system but not new phones

RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis unveils the company's new operating system for smartphones and tablets, BBX, during DevCon, a conference for software developers, at the Moscone West Center in San Francisco on Tuesday. (Beck Diefenbach /Reuters)

RIM's unveiling of its new operating system, BBX, at a software developers' conference in San Francisco Tuesday went some way toward restoring the industry's confidence in its products, observers said. But at the same time, the company didn't have anything immediately tangible to offer consumers.

"The biggest disappointment is the lack of any new devices, any new hardware," said Simon Sage, senior editor with the mobile technology news site IntoMobile, who was liveblogging from the conference.

"I think a lot of people were really looking forward to seeing the BBX running on an actual device and knowing when that device is coming."

On the heels of a three-day network outage last week, which knocked out the email, browsing and messaging capabilities of millions of BlackBerry users, many observers were hoping RIM would throw its customers a bone and use the annual conference to nail down a launch date for its new BBX-enabled smartphones.

RIM has hinted in the past that the new smartphones would be available early next year but it gave no firm date or any other device details on the first day of the three-day conference.

It focused mainly on showcasing what the new platform will enable developers and users to do on its tablet, the PlayBook, the current version of which is the first RIM product to incorporate the QNX software that BBX is built around.

"They showed the new version running on the tablet, which is great, but how much it changes and how many features they fill when they switch over to smartphones is going to be the real decider on whether or not RIM can actually properly compete with Android or iPhone," Sage said.

'Bullet-proof' operating system

BBX incorporates several features of QNX, which was developed by the Ottawa-based company of the same name that RIM bought last year for a reported $200 million. QNX has been known for its reliability and robustness and is used in everything from air traffic control systems to nuclear power plants.

"It seems to run any time, anywhere," said William Stofega, a mobile technology analyst for IDC. "It is a bullet-proof operating system that nothing out there today can even match."

BBX also promises stable multitasking, which would allow a user to have multiple windows open without worrying the whole system might crash.

"This is multiprocessing on steroids," said Stofega. "It really is multiprocessing that has no equal today."

But some observers aren't sure that multitasking will set RIM apart significantly in the marketplace.

"That's also something that Apple has been touting for a while, and that's something that most Android devices do," said JD Speedy, a staff writer for ComputerWorld Canada. "It's a feature that they obviously need to promote, but it's also not one that necessarily distinguishes themselves a whole lot from the device makers at large."

RIM's PlayBook. The company's demonstration of what its new operating system can do focused a lot on the tablet and less on smartphones. (Gustau Nacarino/Reuters)

RIM showcased some of the ways that BBX and a new touch screen user interface, designed by the Swedish company TAT, which RIM acquired last year, will improve web browsing and software applications on the PlayBook.

But it stopped short of saying when the tablet's updated operating system will be available. PlayBook users have been waiting for an upgrade that will enable them to get email, contacts and calendar apps without having to pair it via Bluetooth with their BlackBerry smartphone, and having the data wiped once the connection is cut.

"The OS 2.0 update for the PlayBook has been a long time coming," Sage said. "They were supposed to have stand-alone email on the PlayBook earlier this summer."

App store for corporate use

Sage said he saw little in the way of distinguishing features that will truly set BBX apart from the Apple and Android operating systems except for perhaps something called BlackBerry Balance.

It will enable the IT departments of businesses that use BlackBerrys to separate personal data from work data, allowing workers to use applications like Facebook and Twitter but preventing them from copying work data into these applications.

There will also be a section for company-approved apps in BlackBerry App World, RIM's app store, where businesses can place customized work-specific apps or ones from the regular store that they allow their employees to use. Currently, most businesses lock down company BlackBerry devices so workers can't download any applications or games.

"That is huge, and once that's on BBX phones, it'll offer a degree of flexibility that I don't think the other platforms will be able to offer," Sage said.

The bulk of Tuesday's presentations was geared at showing developers how BBX will make it easier for them to create impressive applications, graphics and games and deploy them seamlessly across all of RIM's platforms and devices.

Company representatives boasted that developers can make more money creating applications for BlackBerry devices than they can making Apple or Android apps (13 per cent of BlackBerry developers made $100,000 or more from their apps, RIM said).

RIM used the keynote address of the conference to go on the offensive and counter some of the negative coverage it has had of late, enumerating a list of misconceptions about the company's performance.

One such "myth," as company executives called it, is that BlackBerry users don't use apps.

RIM said its App World has had one billion downloads to date, gets 140 million downloads a month and is more profitable than the Android app store. (The last claim is a significant one, says Sage as there are far fewer developers competing in the same app categories in the BlackBerry App World than in the Android market, meaning developers can charge more for their apps.)

"They're definitely being fairly aggressive," Sage said of RIM's efforts to counter the bad publicity. "They had that whole myths/facts section, which they've never really done. They've kind of quietly had that attitude that no matter how much bad press RIM is getting, there are some things that they're doing right, and they just kind of stick by that, which on one hand is kind of admirable, but on the other hand, it can seem like desperate lashing out."