The company formerly known as Research In Motion—which decided to cut right to the proverbial chase and rename itself “BlackBerry”—launched its much-anticipated BlackBerry 10 operating system at a high-profile event in New York City Jan. 30.
BlackBerry hopes the new software platform, which features a completely retooled user interface and a cartload of innovative new features, will allow it to stay relevant in a rapidly changing smartphone market. It’s facing off for third place in the smartphone-vendor rankings against Microsoft, which offers Windows Phone 8—a smartphone OS with a similarly unique user interface and tons of apps.
But BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone face a pair of considerable obstacles on their respective paths to fame and fortune: Apple’s iOS and Google Android.
According to a new report from Strategy Analytics, iOS and Android ran on 92 percent of smartphones shipped in the fourth quarter of 2012. “The worldwide smartphone industry has effectively become a duopoly as consumer demand has polarized around mass-market Android models and premium Apple designs,” the research firm wrote in a Jan. 28 blog posting.
To put that percentage in context, some 700.1 million smartphones shipped in 2012, 217 million of them in the fourth quarter—a huge jump over 2011, when 490.5 million units shipped. Samsung and Apple accounted for roughly half of all those devices shipped in 2012.
While Apple has done its level best to nuke Google’s operating system in court, firing off patent-infringement lawsuits at manufacturers such as Samsung, it seems unlikely that Android is going away anytime soon. Despite a recent plunge in its stock price, Apple also continues to sell millions of iPhones and iPads every quarter—also making it unlikely that iOS is going to tumble into oblivion within the next few years.
That leaves BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone in an odd position. Both platforms have their adherents, and BlackBerry manages to retain tens of millions of users around the world. But in order to truly prosper, they need to siphon users away from the Android and iOS juggernauts.
Earlier in January, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins told German newspaper Die Welt that his company was considering several strategic options in the wake of BlackBerry 10’s launch, “including the sale of hardware production [and] licensing our software.” Yet it’s questionable whether licensing to other manufacturers would guarantee BlackBerry more market-share; Microsoft has tried to do the same thing with Windows Phone, by entering into deals with Nokia and other vendors, but it’s failed (at least so far) to gain any sort of game-changing momentum.
BlackBerry could also rely on a good old-fashioned marketing campaign to spread good word about the phone. It’s planning an ad for the Super Bowl, and various carriers around the world will surely pump dollars into a significant advertising effort. But can any company create enough buzz to stand out in a crowded smartphone marketplace? Again, Microsoft has gone down this route—the advertising blitz for Nokia’s Lumia phone line included a huge Times Square event, among other stunts—and failed (again, at least so far) to pose an existential threat to either Android or iOS.
Whatever BlackBerry’s strategy, time is running short. “This year we will see multiple attempts to fight the Samsung/Apple smartphone duopoly in smartphone hardware—along with the twin Google/Apple duopoly in smartphone operating systems,” Ian Fogg, senior principal analyst at HIS, wrote in a Jan. 29 research note. “Because of the fast-rising adoption of smartphones, 2013 represents the last, best hope for RIM’s BlackBerry 10—along with endangered specimens like Microsoft’s Windows Phone, Nokia’s Lumia and Mozilla’s Firefox—to create a viable third smartphone competitor in the market.”
Other analysts seem equally pessimistic. “So far, customers and developers have been lukewarm to adopt new platforms including Windows 8 and webOS despite strong reviews and carrier interest,” Shaw Wu, an analyst with Sterne Agee, wrote in a Jan. 30 research note. “To us, it’s not just the number of apps, but the quality of apps and whether developers are making money and customers are using them.”
BlackBerry’s attempted comeback begins with two devices, the Z10 (featuring a 4.2-inch touch-screen) and the Q10 (with the “traditional” BlackBerry keyboard). Combined with solid early reviews for BlackBerry 10, that could be enough to keep the company in the game a little longer—but whether it can emerge as a true competitor to Android and iOS remains to be seen.