You so want to root for the home team. And in any other game, the fans would go home happy after a come-from-behind, bottom-of-the-ninth-inning win.
But this isn't a game, and RIM's heavy hitter, the BlackBerry 10 operating system and the soon-to-be-released smartphones that run it, come a full five years after Apple rewrote the smartphone script with its then-revolutionary iPhone. For many fans, the game ended long ago when they decided RIM had had enough chances to catch up. Recent figures pointing to rapidly sinking global market share — Gartner data pegs RIM's Q4 2011 share at 8.8 percent, down by nearly 40 percent over the year-earlier period, while comScore puts RIM's current share at an even more dire 6.3 percent — bear that out, confirming that many BlackBerry fans have already moved on to competing platforms.
The worry now is a stark one: No matter how hard RIM hits the ball when it finally releases BlackBerry 10, it could very well be a case of too little, too late. In a report released just before the conference started, RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Sue warned RIM is close to the point of no return if its market share doesn't stabilize soon.
"The risk of becoming a sub 5 per cent share player is a threat to a turnaround," he wrote in his report.
Against this backdrop, thousands of developers, vendors and partners are in Orlando this week for BlackBerry World 2012. The annual event used to be RIM's coming out party, an opportunity for leadership to confirm what everyone already knew: that BlackBerry was the gold standard for mobility.
A few years and a more than a few missed opportunities later, the event now has a much different feel. With RIM now in the unfamiliar position of playing catchup — Gartner's figures confirm Android now owns just over half of the global market, with Apple's iOS-based iPhones at 23.8 percent — this company-sponsored event has become more than just an excuse for the BlackBerry-converted to get together and sing RIM's praises. It's now a visible turning point in the company's history as it fights to remain relevant to mobile device buyers.
The conference agenda — an upbeat keynote by CEO Thorsten Heins, a reveal and demo of an early, "Dev Alpha" version of the upcoming BlackBerry 10-based device, and a giveaway of thousands of these prototype devices to developers to entice them to build code for the new operating system — marks a significant departure for RIM. It shows, starkly, that the company is playing catchup. And unlike past years under the previous leadership of Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, it finally admits it publicly.
That's the good news. Openness and honesty have been much more prevalent under Heins's leadership, a sign that he's doing the right things to spark a turnaround. Also good is the outreach to developers, whose relative alienation has long been the reason why RIM's app store ambitions have fallen far short of the competition.
Tired of years of inadequate tools that make it more difficult and time-consuming to develop for RIM products, many have fled for iOS and Android, where better development tools, more consistent vendor support and a larger, more stable base of potential customers await. The ongoing market share crash will likely prompt even more coders to flee, but this week's in-person walkthroughs of the new BlackBerry 10-based tools should give at least some loyalists reason to remain in the fold. If RIM does nothing else for the rest of the year, getting developers re-energized and re-engaged needs to be its ultimate priority for the new platform.
The bad news? The prototype device looks suspiciously like virtually every other touchscreen-based smartphone currently on the market. In fairness, there isn't much opportunity to differentiate one slab of glass from any other, and in 2012 this is what smartphones typically look like. But for fans expecting something groundbreaking from a company that had promised better industrial design in its upcoming products, the prototype device does nothing to set RIM apart. It looks like an iPhone. And with Apple getting ready to update its smartphone later this year, RIM once again looks like it's playing catchup.
Worse, the software demo failed to include any truly unique new capabilities. The camera app with some slick on-device editing capabilities got some wows from the floor, but a few isolated feature-wins against Apple and Google won't suddenly leapfrog RIM ahead of its competitors. If there's a game-changing, big-gun play in the works before BlackBerry 10 goes live, now is the time for Heins to make it happen.
As much as we want to see the home team pull out the win, it isn't clear if it's doing enough to stay in the game. RIM needed a home run this week, and instead we're seeing singles and doubles.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. email@example.com