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Is BlackBerry Doomed to Be North America's Nokia?

BlackBerry

When Apple announces a new flagship phone, it's front-page news, worldwide. When the new best Android phone in the world is announced (every few weeks, it seems), it's front-page news of every tech publication in the country, and the source of endless debates. Yet, the largest smartphone manufacturer in America just announced a new flagship phone, along with the biggest change to its mobile OS in years. And what did I do?

I read the reports (watched as Middle Eastern nations banned BlackBerrys), I stretched, I drank a cup of coffee, and I looked for other news to write about.

How? How could BlackBerry, the Canadian powerhouse, the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, inspire such apathy? Is BlackBerry doomed to be the next Nokia, a massive success that loses marketshare and is forced into a panicked, desperate crouch despite its incredible sales?

My answer is no, not exactly. RIM, the Ontario-based maker of BlackBerry, is a much savvier company than Nokia, and, frankly, I think its products are better. BlackBerry's dual announcements, the BlackBerry Torch phone and the BlackBerry OS 6 software, show BlackBerry's true ambitions—or lack thereof.

The new BlackBerry Torch is a disappointing handset. Its processor is on par with the last-generation iPhone and other older phones like the Palm Pre and Motorola Droid. Its screen is quite simply at least two years out of date, and will seem blurry and inadequate to those used to a modern Android phone or the iPhone 4. The Torch is coming to AT&T, the world's most hated network, at a price of $200 when it's released on August 12th. Can it compete with the iPhone, the country's most buzzed-about smartphone, or the upcoming Windows Phone 7, a breath of fresh air for the industry? Both are on AT&T—why would anyone go with a Torch?

BlackBerry's OS 6 software is a baby step at best, designed to keep current customers feeling comfortable, rather than moving the platform forward. Minor steps have been made in multimedia, and its social networking integration looks nice enough. But the basic interface is mostly unchanged, and core apps (apart from the browser) remain the same as BlackBerry 4, several years ago.

RIM should be most worried about this report: Over half of current BlackBerry owners say they want their next phone to be either an iPhone or an Android device. Compare that with Android's 71% loyalty rate, and the iPhone's whopping 89% rate, and you can see that there's a serious problem with BlackBerry. But I think RIM won't behave quite like Nokia.

That's largely due to the dedicated BlackBerry customers. Anecdotally, many BlackBerry customers are just as devoted to their platform as any iPhone customer. And the corporate world isn't about to give up on BlackBerry anytime soon—they've invested too much time and effort to make this one platform work with their businesses, and it's not necessarily worth it to switch.

Then there's the products themselves. The reason tech journalists, especially in the consumer world, hate writing about BlackBerry isn't that it's bad. Trashing lousy products is one of the great pleasures of the gadget reviewer. The problem is that BlackBerry is dull and slow to evolve. I doubt BlackBerry 6 is going to lose the company any customers—it's not likely to gain them very many, but BlackBerry does not (aside from possibly the Storm line) screw up. They never hit home runs, either, but they don't strike out.

Nokia strikes out. Nokia releases misguidedly ambitious phones, phones with amazing advanced features and crippling inadequacies. Last year's N97 is a perfect example: The N97 has a two-way FM radio (so you can listen to radio or beam it out to a car, like an FM transmitter), tons of storage, full Flash playback, and 3D maps. Yet it's also ruined by lousy internals (a pokey processor and crappy screen), a terrible app store, a confusing interface, and inconsistent navigation. BlackBerry would never release a phone like that.

So is BlackBerry the next Nokia? No. But unless the company shakes things up for consumers, it's going to continue to lose ground (as it did last quarter) until the only ones left are corporate customers and die-hards.

[Image credit: Gizmodo]

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco Brooklyn (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).