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TECHNOLOGY

6 Ways BlackBerry Can Become Relevant Again
 

Are there any die-hard "CrackBerry" fans anymore? What RIM must do to win back the business crowd.

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BlackBerry is in the throes of a total nuclear-style meltdown. Nielsen reports the market share for the famous thumb-happy smartphone, once affectionately called a CrackBerry, has eroded from a high of 23% early last year down to the current level of just under 15%. More telling, the report indicates that the BlackBerry has only a 6% market share among recent smartphone buyers.

Some small business owners have more than just a passing allegiance to the platform, however. A few are operating their entire email infrastructure using BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Some have handed out the device to every employee in the entire organization. And, there are many loyalists who still prefer the tactile feedback of a full QWERTY keyboard and the easy portability of a basic data phone.

Unfortunately, those users are in a stark minority these days. For the BlackBerry (and the recently updated PlayBook 2.0 tablet) to rebound, here are six steps back to good health.

1. Get BlackBerry 10 out the door.

The total revamp of the operating system can’t come soon enough. At this point, it looks like BlackBerry 10 won’t see the light of day until later this year. At that point, Research in Motion (the company that makes the BlackBerry) may have to raise the platform from the dead. Interestingly, the new OS focuses on a tile interface not that different from, say, the Windows 7 Phone. Smartphone screens have improved recently so the need for a physical keyboard is not as critical. And, there’s a shift to more visual mobile tech that does a lot of the processing for you—we don’t need to type as much, because the apps do the work. For example, Dropbox syncs content so you don’t have to email attachments, Web content fills into apps automatically, and Siri understands spoken word commands and can dictate your text messages.

2. Push hard on the PlayBook.

I’m not ready to ditch the Apple iPad, and Android tablets offer an exceptional number of quality apps and a Google backbone. But the PlayBook is not a bad 7-inch tablet, something akin to the Kindle without a fluid e-book ecosystem. The recent PlayBook 2.0 upgrade helps—you can now grab your email on the device without having to sync with a BlackBerry phone (a “feature” intended for security). You can swipe easily from one app to another. Unfortunately, the upgrade does not address a fundamental problem: extremely poor app selection.

3. Give everything away.

In the push to sell the $199 PlayBook 2.0, which is now the same as the Kindle Fire, RIM should make a bold move: start giving away the outdated models. I checked at my local AT&T store and found, once I cleared the dust off the placard, that several of the latest BlackBerry models are priced higher than Android phones. If RIM can somehow give us a sneak peek or early beta look at BlackBerry 10 (as is the Microsoft way), and convince people that this is the OS you can use at some point in the future, and all the phones are free, maybe they can convince a few more customers to stick around.

4. Do something amazing.

Apple attracts attention because, just about once a year, they release a magical device. (They also have the best media ecosystem, a brilliant OS, the best app selection, and a fluid user experience that includes response touchscreen and a functional speech recognition engine.) If the BlackBerry is to stay relevant, it needs to be revitalized with a brand new product, even if BlackBerry 10 is not ready. How about an 11-inch version of the PlayBook that comes with a free license to watch recent Hollywood films? Or maybe a new business app that competes with Salesforce or a PBX system, included with every BlackBerry? Try giving away the BlackBerry enterprise server to companies that buy a set number of smartphones.

5. Solve the Android app problem.

The PlayBook 2.0 now supports Android apps, but only after the apps are ported over. It is a fairly routine process, and developers can even sign-up to receive a free PlayBook to help with testing. The problem is that the end-user doesn’t have time for any of this. If there are any hurdles at all, we often will not jump over them. (Look at the problems with early Android tablets that shipped without the Android Market.) An emulator should just work without any re-purposing. When you load an Android app, it should just run. Also, asking Android developers to port their app to a device that is so slim right now with apps is not a good strategy—it’s like asking people on land to swim out to your island.

6. Improve the BlackBerry hardware.

One last strategy is to improve the BlackBerry hardware in time for the OS 10 release. My last test with a BlackBerry was frustrating because the touchscreen was not responsive, the device felt heavy and cumbersome, and it didn’t work with faster 4G networks. New devices should come with an NFC chip for buying goods by tapping the phone on a terminal, Bluetooth HDP (Health Device Protocol) for connecting to workout machines and health monitors, a way to beam contacts between phones, and other features designed to attract early adopters. Then, make sure the OS supports them seamlessly.

IMAGE: juanpol/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 19, 2012

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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