A new BlackBerry, but more importantly, a new BlackBerry operating system upgrade, is coming. "Yawn," you say? Don't be too quick to dismiss Research In Motion and its sturdy line of smart phones.
On Tuesday, the company, in conjunction with AT&T, is expected to announce a new touch-slider phone, the BlackBerry Bold 9800, which will likely use a new OS, version 6. Indications are that 6 will be an exponential improvement from OS 5, including a badly needed re-do of the BlackBerry Web browser, which is painfully slow and frustrating to use.
The Web browser is a metaphor for BlackBerrys themselves — often kludgy, sluggish and difficult to use, especially when compared to the iPhone and phones using the Android operating system. But tabbed browsing — which lets you keep one Web page in view while looking at another — is finally coming to the BlackBerry browser, and so is speed, with the new browser described as being much quicker.
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Perhaps RIM is just catching up to where the iPhone and Android are, but it would be foolish to count RIM out — especially as it still retains the No. 1 spot in the United States as a smart phone platform, with 41.7 percent of the market at the end of May, according to comScore.
That leading edge has been getting nibbled away, slowly but surely, first by the iPhone, introduced in 2007, and now by Android, which has come on like gangbusters in the past year, helped by several high-profile phones including the Motorola Droid, HTC Droid Incredible and HTC Evo.
RIM's market share was down four-tenths of a percent from what it had been three months earlier, comScore said; at the end of December 2009, RIM had a 41.6 percent market share, and at the end of September, 2009, a 42.6 percent share.
"Mobile operating systems have become the key ingredient in the highly competitive mobile device market," said Stephen Drake, IDC's vice president of mobility and telecom, earlier this year.
"Although the overall look and feel of the device will still play an important role in the buying process, the wrong choice of operating system coupled with an awkward user interface can mean the difference between success and failure."
BlackBerry OS 6 will have to prove itself in these criteria, as will Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7, which shows lots of promise, but is by no means a sure thing. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
"We believe (BlackBerry's) new user interface with multi-touch technology and ... browser closes the gap materially against Android and iPhone," Shaw Wu of Kaufman Bros. said in a note to clients this week.
While RIM is keeping a zipped lip until Tuesday's announcement, there have been some previews of what is coming.
At RIM's own "Inside BlackBerry: The Official BlackBerry Blog," Joey Benedek, the company's director of user experience research, talks about not only a "cleaner and sleeker" look to the BlackBerry's home screen, but also how "movement between and within applications is more fluid," letting users navigate the device more intuitively with a sliding gesture.
Such fluidity would be good, as now it can be like pecking for scraps trying to maneuver a BlackBerry's keys and menus.
The new OS 6 also will have five separate views that a user "can easily switch between using the Navigation Bar, depending on their preference and the type of information they’re looking for," Benedek said in the Inside BlackBerry interview.
"These include: 'Frequent,' where your most frequently used apps are automatically placed for easy access; 'Favorites,' where you can choose to add not just your favorite applications, but also to create shortcuts to particular contacts or Web pages ... 'media' for all your media-centric content; 'downloads,' for all the apps you download; and 'all' ... (a) big vertical list that you can scroll through, similar to the Home Screen today."
Benedek said that users will be able to "simply slide left and right (the touch-screen or trackpad, depending on your BlackBerry smart phone model) to quickly get to any of these new view panes."
There will also be two "quick access areas" of the home screen. One will be for connections, alarm and the options screen; the other for viewing your most recent e-mails, BB Messenger text messages, phone calls, as well as Facebook and Twitter posts.
The BlackBerry home screen will also include "Universal Search" — something the iPhone and Android offer — to make it easy to find contacts, music, photos — any of your stuff stashed on your smart phone.
The improvements are long overdue, and will be welcomed by BlackBerry fans who have stayed loyal to the company and its phones. Some have migrated to Android, as well as to the iPhone in the past year or so.
Whether RIM's operating system changes are enough to keep existing customers and draw new ones in remains to be seen. The smart phone market itself continues to keep growing, with more American consumers buying the devices. And BlackBerrys remain the corporate cell phone of choice because of their reputation for good security and overall sturdiness.