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Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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BlackBerry 6, Windows Phone 7: Will You Stand In Line?

Are Research In Motion and Microsoft chasing the glory of consumer acceptance and compromising their relative success in the enterprise? That's the risk of following Apple and Google, rather than leading with strength and innovation.

Here are things people stand in line for: A new Harry Potter book, a Van Gogh museum exhibit, a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Sprinkles cupcakes, U2 concert tickets (and the bathroom line at intermission), Apple's iPad, Apple's iPhone 4 (and possibly to return Apple's iPhone 4). Each of those is brilliantly executed or well marketed or simply iconic. Following a Summer of Droid Rage (see Droid X and Droid Incredible), RIM and Microsoft are desperately trying to manipulate the upcoming holiday season's attention and while both will succeed in their own ways, neither need worry about the likes of Jason Bateman jumping lines. What they should worry about is whether they are falling prey to the seduction of consumer glamour at the expense of their core enterprise customer base.

BlackBerry: Follower Or Leader

BlackBerry 6, Bold 9800, BlackBerry Tablet
People once stood in line (short ones) for the BlackBerry Storm; if Research in Motion's massive consumer marketing campaign is effective, they will again for whatever is coming this holiday season. You can hardly traverse San Francisco without being bombarded with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) ads; they are slathered on building facades and the BBM "star" is ubiquitous on BART; it's even popping up in New York City, where it's a little more difficult to stand out. Suddenly RIM is competing with Apple for city-wide eyeballs.BBM in the San Francisco Subway

RIM showed BlackBerry 6, its forthcoming operating system, at its WES conference earlier this year, and has begun revealing glimpses of it on YouTube (below) and in its own blog. Various Photos and video demos of what some are calling the Bold 9800 are also starting to leak, alongside rumors of a BlackBerry tablet.

Successful change comes both in increments and major leaps. RIM has continued to improve the BlackBerry keyboard, modified the device track wheel (now a slick track pad), streamlined its App World, made BBM a fabulous instant messaging app that includes voice notes, enhanced its Twitter client and made dozens of other user-facing changes. While App World isn't nearly as populated as iTunes, it's no slouch. BIS, BES Express and BlackBerry Protect proliferate a modicum of enterprise-class e-mail sync and security control to small businesses and consumers.

But as RIM sees the iPhone and Android phones chasing its hegemony, it must feel the pressure to improve its sex appeal. On the product front, that means a better touch screen experience, more multimedia options, better social media integration, and a Webkit browser. In other words, a smartphone experience that is as much of a beast for consuming content as it is for creating it.

All of the demos and blogs and videos would suggest that RIM will have accomplished this. But these new BlackBerry experiences appear to merely put its phones within parity's spitting distance of the iPhone and Android (final judgement reserved for real-world, hands-on use). That might be enough for BlackBerry loyalists and addicts, but it's hardly enough to pull the dissolute mobs out of the Harry Potter movie line. While that's probably acceptable -- RIM has had little trouble maintaining its smartphone lead without these features and mob-like lines -- the enormous uptick in visibility and spending is an omen of the competitive escalation. From here on, the wars may be fought in leaks to the Wall Street Journal and on the billboards of major cities.

So be it. Not our problem. But there are two other problems BlackBerry fans should worry about. First, there's the question of whether these blingy new features (except Webkit support) will compromise all of the features that simply work. There are so many subtleties in a BlackBerry that look and feel routine, but that routine is what makes them so powerful. It simply is less work to consume, interact with and produce e-mail, text, instant messaging and anything else that requires user input. Users do want the bling; phones have become status symbols, so bring it on. Just don't kill what makes a BlackBerry special.

Second, there's the question of whether all of the focus and money being spent on the bling compromises the enterprise features that singlehandedly make BlackBerry the best-selling smart phone. Apple and Android handset makers (and Google itself) have a long, long way to go to ever catch up to what BlackBerry offers in centralized control, policy enforcement and security (beyond the security of the device itself).

Both companies give short shrift to those capabilities in their public comments, and it shows in the products. Consumers may not care, but CIOs do. Arguments abound that these devices are finding their way into the enterprise, and IT had better just get with the program; but where confidentiality, corporate policy, and regulations become factors, that just won't fly. RIM has even addressed usage scenarios that have personal BlackBerry devices coming into the enterprise; they've thought of everything.

Slideshow: Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Revealed
(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)

But painting buildings and subway stations takes capital, planning and thought. Making multi-touch a priority takes resources. Hiring sexy dancers to demo new phone features consumes focus. Getting copyrights to Black-Eyed Peas songs saps investment dollars. Apple has enterprise APIs in the hands of developers now (it isn't saying much about them, but sources reveal that there's some religion developing there); Google is touting its mobile device control with Google Apps. And companies like Good Technology and Fiberlink and Trust Digital (now part of McAfee) offer alternatives that mirror some of what BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) does for heterogenous mobile scenarios. None of these approaches is as developed or as integrated into the entire user experience, but if RIM slows down the innovation here to work on its sex appeal, it could open the door for others to catch up.

Windows Phone 7
If the reaction to videos and writings on the technical preview for Windows Phone 7 are any indication, there are some strong feelings on both sides of the debate. Many believe that Microsoft will fail yet again, while others think the vast empire finally got things right. Time will tell, as it always does with Microsoft. No cut and paste? They'll get to that eventually. No multitasking (except with Microsoft apps)? Surely in a future release (Windows Phone Vista anyone?).

Details and opinions are everywhere, but the true answer remains elusive: whether someone will stand in line for a Windows phone. Probably not--it could figure out how to handle mothers-in-law, fix Apple's antenna issue and come with a happy ending, and still consumers will be skeptical. Nevertheless, it appears to be a significant new product, and Microsoft has put a great deal of thought into its user experience. Demonstrations reveal a cleaner, far more functional phone OS. Early beta testers have been practically giddy, and admittedly surprised. What will matter is not whether it is just better than Windows Mobile 6.5, or whether it is at parity with the iPhone or Android, but whether Microsoft has mastered something fundamental and electrifying.

If they have, then eventually Windows Phone 7 will climb its way into the game, beyond the instant installed base of 90,000 Microsoft employees. Developers will follow (even though Microsoft says it has a long list of developers working on Phone 7 apps, some I've talked to say they will sit Windows Phone 7 out for now). Still, this is a big bet. If Microsoft gets it wrong, it will be nearly impossible to win back any credibility -- better to leave out a few key standard features and focus on something new.

Like Research In Motion, Microsoft is trying first for mass appeal, choosing to disturb a battle amongst today's mobile Goliaths. To wit: consumer-oriented web sites have already had their hands on the small pool of beta devices running Windows Phone 7; Microsoft said that Windows Phone 7 will not be managed by Systems Center Mobile Device Manager; and Aaron Woodman, Microsoft's Director of Consumer Experience for Mobile, said that Windows Phone 7's user experience was designed "so the brain doesn't even have to function."

What Microsoft may have gotten right is pegging the smartphone as the ultimate device for driving a social experience; a hub for people-oriented context, a unifying platform for status updates and other forms of micro-events tied to human activity. Today that is largely a consumer phenomenon, but that is bound to change. Whether that's enough to set Windows Phone 7 apart will require more experience, not to mention developers with apps that take advantage of it. Either way, Microsoft is starting at zero, with just its name and reputation, for better or worse.

It had better get used to standing in line.

A Word About HP/Palm
We'll see. (OK, that was two words.)

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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