The BlackBerry Diaspora

I’ve tried to avoid chiming in on BlackBerry 10 but the past few days have brought us an excellent set of reviews and assessments of the platform and, now that I’ve had the chance to play with the device first-hand, I’m ready to say it: BlackBerry did a great job, but it won’t be enough.

On the one hand, BB10 is a beautiful effort. It’s evocative of webOS and some of the best skeuomorphism I’ve seen in a long time. The swipe UI takes a while to figure out – there are few onscreen cues – but once you get the hang of it sliding around the interface isn’t hard. The built-in apps are creative and imaginatively done and the messaging, as expected, is excellent. The browser isn’t the best in terms of actually navigating full web pages, and selecting text in entry fields and other places is finicky, but overall it’s a strong debut for a new mobile OS.

And yet… the operating system is derivative and so far from the original BlackBerry OS environment that it will scare off casual BlackBerry fans. The value of a phone with a keyboard is diminished by arguably more powerful and full-featured Android phones, and iOS is a safe moneymaker for app developers.

Much has been said about the coming glut of apps and the pledges made by major developers to make software for BB10. This is fine, but Microsoft has much more money to convince developers to drop cool apps on its platform than BlackBerry and, in the end, that’s what drives adoption in untested waters. I’ve spoken to many developers who have been wined and dined by Microsoft and who, in turn, made apps for Windows Phone. The same can be said of BlackBerry, but what small dev house wants to support apps on four platforms, let alone on just Android and iOS?

Another argument hinges on security and IT. However, as any enterprise IT guy will tell you, we’re in the age of BYOD. Why run BES and an IMAP server and whatever is necessary for a small business when Google Apps does the same just as easily for a small business and other cloud services based on secure standards are available to IT fleets? I know that it isn’t all perfect – there are still plenty of hoops Mac owners have to jump through to get into secure file systems remotely and many enterprise apps aren’t available for Android or iOS but, if I’m an in-house app builder, what will I spend my time learning? It’s not BB10, especially when the boss is clamoring for a custom iOS financial dashboard she can use on a daily basis.

In short, BB10 isn’t built for the way business is done today. When RIM was in its ascendance there weren’t many options for an IT guy. You could install Exchange, sendmail, or Lotus and wait for a crash. BES was a godsend. Now that’s no longer true. 99.9% uptime is the rule, not the exception, and there are hundreds of cloud service providers that can turn a single founder into a mobile powerhouse from the comfort of her phone – her iOS phone.

There will be three players in this game and their market shares will remain fairly constant. Android will lead due to install base, iOS will come second, and Windows Phone will sit solidly as a roadblock to potential rivals. As odd as it seems right now, Microsoft is about to win a major seat at the mobile table, a seat that once belonged to BlackBerry. Windows 8 will become the norm and the new UI will become as familiar to us all as Windows XP.

The biggest problem? Blackberry fans are scattered. Years of relative stagnation have forced the company to rethink its entire strategy and, while there was once amazing value in building a great phone with a great keyboard, that time has passed. The fan who clung desperately to his Bold over the intervening years will be off-put by BB10 and countless workers forced to use BlackBerrys at their jobs have finally rattled the cage enough to be allowed to bring any phone at all to the office.

Two days ago, RIM became BlackBerry and promised the next generation of messaging smartphones to a fan base that has moved on. In March, I wonder how many of those fans will head to stores to pick up the latest from this largely irrelevant company.