What BlackBerry 6's Consumer Focus Means For Business

Aug 28, 2010 (02:08 AM EDT)

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BlackBerry 6 is Research In Motion's recently overhauled operating system. It became available on August 12, when the BlackBerry 9800 Torch went on sale at AT&T stores.

When RIM introduced the new platform in front of a large gathering of New York tech reporters, the company focused keenly on consumers. In fact, all the video demonstrations shown at the event were of normal people using BlackBerry 6 in their everyday lives. What happened to the powerful executive, the busy sales professional, the traveling field technician? Did RIM forget about them? Not entirely.

RIM used some interesting language to describe BlackBerry 6. The one that stuck in everyone's head is "fresh but familiar." RIM wanted the user interface to be different, but still easily understood by seasoned BlackBerry veterans.

"RIM was too cautious and left too much the same," said Current Analysis' Avi Greengart. "BlackBerry 6 is not a radical break." That's both good and bad. BlackBerry 6 has improved the browsing experience, added more integrated social networking features, and improved media handling. Fundamentally, however, BlackBerry 6 offers the same user interface with a more consumer friendly home screen.

RIM admitted that it had its eye on Joe and Jane Smith when designing the new user interface. "There were a number of goals in developing BlackBerry 6," said Andrew Bocking, VP of handheld software product management. "The overall drive in designing the user interface was the consumer. We added a number of new features that are important to the consumer, and speak to the broader market. BlackBerry 6 was enhanced for consumers, but maintains all the power that we have traditionally held in the enterprise."

You wouldn't know that if you attended the BlackBerry 6 launch event. RIM didn't talk all that much about BlackBerry 6's enterprise features. So, what are they?

Best Business Features

RIM strongly believes that the most important feature of BlackBerry 6 is the browser. "One of the big goals was to revitalize the browser. Basing not only the browser, but some of the underlying software, on WebKit, HTML5, and other Web standards was a key initiative," said Bocking.

It's easy to understand why. Apple and Google have offered RIM fierce competition with the iPhone and Android platforms. Both use WebKit-based browsers, and both are among the best available on any mobile handset. RIM really needed to supercharge the performance of its browser to keep in step with its competitors.

Greengart agrees that the browser is one of BlackBerry 6's best features. "The WebKit browser, along with gesture support, pinch-to-zoom, and inertial scrolling, makes for a dramatically better Web browsing experience. That is applicable to the enterprise as more employees move to the Web and use Web-based tools for research or their work. Sure, it adds something that RIM needs for consumer competition, but the browser is also the most important addition for enterprise users."

The universal search function will also be powerful for all users, including the enterprise. With universal search, users simply start typing and BlackBerry 6 starts searching the device. If you search for "John," universal search will parse through all the contacts, documents, and other items containing the word John. Contacts are presented in the results first. Select one and the full contact card will open.

What's really helpful is that all the recent calls, e-mails, instant and BlackBerry messages, and even shared calendar events with that contact will be displayed within the contact card. That lets users see all their recent communications with "John" at a glance.

RIM's Bocking also feels that the new notification system is a killer feature. "From the home screen, you can quickly see notifications without having to dive down into all the separate apps," he said. "That's a powerful tool for productivity for focused users who need to triage messaging quickly."

In practice, it is indeed useful. After spending about a week with the BlackBerry 9800 Torch, I can say that the notifications work very well. They drop down and show the sender and subject of e-mails, texts, Twitter messages, Facebook notifications, and so on. If you need to see who sent that most recent e-mail, but don't want to open the e-mail application, the notification tool lets you find out who at a glance.

It goes without saying that BlackBerry 6 -- in conjunction with BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.x -- maintains all the policy and security controls that businesses have relied on for years. The e-mail program is as powerful as ever, as are the BlackBerry Messenger and Contacts applications. RIM has done a superb job at integrating contacts and social networking features across other applications within BlackBerry 6. This lets users more seamlessly move from app to app to complete some tasks.

Comparing Apples With Torches

BlackBerry 6 does take a significant step forward in terms of usability and functionality, but that doesn't mean it has surpassed the competition. Will BlackBerry 6 win new converts, or keep the rank and file in order?

"I think they've done a good job at keeping the IT guys on board," said Altimeter Group's Michael Gartenberg. "IT is going to be happy because all the IT stuff is workable. The problem is those pesky end users may not be enamored enough with BlackBerry 6 and the Torch. They may opt for other things that look cooler, such as Android and iPhone."

Most who've had a chance to test and use BlackBerry 6 agree that the new user interface will be enough to keep existing BlackBerry users on board. If you are addicted to the BlackBerry experience in terms of e-mail, BlackBerry Messenger, and other apps and features, there's enough to be excited about.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry Torch Exploded View
(click image for larger view)
Research In Motion's BlackBerry Torch Exploded View
The Torch has a high-quality and very usable physical keyboard, something many of RIM's competitors lack. The keyboard, combined with the user interface, browser, and media enhancements, make BlackBerry 6 and the Torch very appealing. "There are an awful lot of BlackBerry users who have been waiting for just this sort of thing," said Greengart. "If you are already comfortable with BlackBerry OS, but wish it were more organized and more finger friendly, well, your wish came true."

The Torch's screen is a bit of a disappointment. At 3.2 inches, and 360 x 480 pixels, it doesn't even come close to matching what's offered by the iPhone 4 or Samsung Galaxy S Captivate, for example. Screen size and resolution will be a tough sell, especially with the iPhone and Samsung Captivate sitting on the shelf next to the Torch in AT&T stores.

Speaking of AT&T, the 9800 Torch is an AT&T exclusive. If you have Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon, no Torch for you. A lot of businesses have AT&T BlackBerry accounts. For those users, they should upgrade to the Torch, no question.

If your business uses BlackBerrys on another network, it's best to take the wait-and-see approach.

App World Redux

Another area where RIM lags the competition is with application availability and distribution. BlackBerry App World doesn't offer nearly the wealth of applications, games, and other content that the iPhone App Store and Android Market do. It's getting better, but slowly.

"The enterprise has been an area of focus for years," said RIM's Bocking."BlackBerry 6 helps the enterprise from an application development perspective. With the new operating system and WebKit browser, enterprises can write applications for the browser. HTML5 support means they can tie into core features and APIs of the OS and device. This is a big benefit for Web-based developers looking for standards-compliant Web technologies."

RIM has updated App World for BlackBerry 6, making it a core feature out of the box. It adds support for carrier billing and credit card billing, which makes application purchases easier for the enterprise and the user alike. RIM claims that App World is also a great vehicle to deliver IT-supported applications to professionals.

Greengart isn't so convinced. "My sense of it is that, to an extent, consumer apps can be used in business situations. For example, things such as parking apps. Parking apps weren't specifically designed for businesses, but they are useful nonetheless. Apps like this tend to show up on iPhone first, Android second, and RIM third -- if at all. If you're a consumer, RIM didn't do enough to address the lack of apps."

RIM has a lot of work to do to prove that its App World and enterprise support story are going to improve dramatically.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry Torch
(click image for larger view)
Research In Motion's BlackBerry Torch
Long Live the Prosumer?

RIM is not shy to call a horse a horse. "One of the things that we've seen happening," said Bocking, "is this trend of users in the enterprise driving the smartphone of choice. At the end of the day we are all consumers. Even if we work, we are consumers. All the new features in BlackBerry 6 are geared toward users."

While that's true, RIM still needs to take care to appease enterprise needs. BlackBerry 6, the Torch, and Torch-like products at other carriers will be enough for RIM to keep its basic business running. There's no doubt of that. There's enough of a difference between the way the user interface behaves on the Torch when compared to older BlackBerrys that plenty of business and consumer users will adopt the new platform. RIM still faces challenges, however.

RIM is still a relevant player, and has tremendous market share. It may not be at the front of the pack in terms of leadership and bleeding edge technology (both software and hardware), but it's not at the end of the line, either. "RIM has to kick it back up a few notches if it wants to reclaim the market leadership position," notes Garteberg.

BlackBerry 6 and the Torch were a small step to keep RIM's fervent user base happy, but the BlackBerry operating system may eventually need a major overhaul. RIM might be forced to take a more revolutionary approach not so far down the road in order to stoke the fires in developers' eyes.

If you are looking for radically different hardware and software that leapfrogs the competition, BlackBerry 6 and the Torch aren't it. However, RIM has done a fine job of crafting an easy-to-use smartphone with software that delivers what matters most to the professional and personal user alike: access to their online world.

For Further Reading

First Impressions: BlackBerry 6 Software

First Impressions: BlackBerry 9800 Torch Hardware

BlackBerry's Torch Is On Fire

BlackBerry Torch Being Sold At Steep Discount

BlackBerry Torch Cheaper To Build Than iPhone 4