Mobile IT Watch: Analysts Assess BlackBerry OS 6

After the recent leaks about Research In Motion's BlackBerry OS 6, the 'news' got a bit more official: the new Blackberry OS will be coming to a handheld device near you in the next quarter.

Previewed two weeks ago in a two-minute teaser video at RIM's annual Wireless Enterprise Symposium (WES), the OS will work on touchscreen and hard-key BlackBerry smartphones, as well as on devices that incorporate both touchscreen and hard-key functions.

The video, now on RIM's (NASDAQ: RIMM) blog, shows three characters -- a consumer, an enterprise worker and a student -- using a multitouch interface (similar to the iPhone's) to navigate between instant messaging, Facebook and other mobile apps with the flick of a finger. Additionally, one segment of the video shows a user doing a two-finger "pinch-to-zoom" motion to enlarge images.

Also revealed in the BlackBerry OS 6 preview video is a multi-tab browser based on the same open source Webkit browser engine used in the iPhone's Safari OS. Other new features include: a redesigned set of core applications, universal search and a new application for integrating RSS and social networking feeds.

What the video doesn't show is how much RIM has riding on its updated OS, given the unprecedented competition in the mobile sector.

RIM needs to improve its mobile browser and refresh the overall BlackBerry experience to keep pace with rivals in the fiercely competitive smartphone market. Apple just unveiled iPhone OS 4, which addresses some mobile security and mobile IT management issues lacking in prior iterations, and is expected to preview the next-generation iPhone in June.

Meanwhile, Google's Android platform is making steady gains as major handset makers including Motorola and HTC roll out impressive handsets on all four major US wireless networks.

Given the high stakes, we asked several mobile analysts to provide their insight on what we know about BlackBerry OS so far - and if it will be enough to keep RIM in the top spot in the sector.

"The video highlights the market segments (consumer, student and enterprise worker) that BlackBerry 6 will target, and that RIM wants to own as it works to retain its market share lead over Apple and Google Android smartphones," said Chris Hazelton, research director for mobile and wireless at The 451 Group.

"The new OS combines new, fun elements without skimping on the tools and security that are in BlackBerry's DNA. The future of the BlackBerry is likely to be communications centric. With the new OS, I think we will see RIM leverage the BlackBerry's history of multi-tasking to power multi-level communication -- voice, email, and instant messaging -- with the BlackBerry Messenger platform."

Key Elements of the New BlackBerry OS

The key elements of the new OS are updated browsing, an improved UI, touchscreen capability, plus a deepening of Blackberry's core strength - communications, said William Stofega, a mobile analyst manager at research firm IDC.

"I think the OS will be a significant update for RIM," said Stofega. "The OS was looking a bit long in the tooth and needed a refresh."

To stay competitive in the smartphone market and keep pace with iPhone and Android devices, RIM needed to update its OS to attract new users while improving its communications for existing users, Stofega said.

RIM's acquisition of Torch Mobile brings a Webkit browser engine to BlackBerry, the same used by iPhone, Android and webOS devices, according to Hazelton, which another analyst sees as a huge step forward for RIM.

"The Webkit browser changes the parameters of what can be developed and displayed -- that's a big change for RIM," said Jack Gold, analyst and head of J. Gold Associates. "We can expect to see plenty of apps that will exploit the Webkit browser."

The Arrival of Touch-Centric BlackBerrys

Hazelton believes RIM's goal with BlackBerry 6 is to offer an experience, with multitouch, that meets or exceeds the new iPhone, which is scheduled to come to market in June before BlackBerry 6.

By replacing the lists of options in text menus with large, iconic buttons, BlackBerry 6 will allow users to quickly switch or launch related applications, said Hazelton.

Again, Hazelton believes these new menu options emphasize RIM's communications and multitasking strengths.

For example, the new OS will allow users to call, SMS, or BlackBerry message a contact from an email.

Gold likes that the home screen will provide a more fluid experience for users. "The home screen will be completely customizable," said Gold. "Users will be able to have their apps on the main page, then slide left or right to another page with different apps."

There will also be a sliding field toward the bottom of the home page - allowing users to slide it up to reveal the first page of apps.

Another feature will be large, easily accessible browser tabs, which will offer mini views of each open page for quick navigation between tabs.

Plenty of Competition for RIM

While RIM will up its game with the new OS, the vendor faces serious competition globally and in the U.S., notably from Apple's iPhones and Android devices here and from Nokia's Symbian-based devices overseas.

Last year, Apple's iPhone nearly doubled its worldwide market share of smartphone sales to 14.4 percent, up 6.2 points from the year before, according to research from Gartner. The iPhone lags behind Nokia's Symbian-powered smartphones (No. 1), whose share declined 5.5 points to 46.9 percent; and RIM BlackBerrys (No. 2), which gained 3.3 points to end 2009 with a 19.9 percent share.

Google's Android has seen rapid growth due to support from HTC, Motorola, and Samsung.

HTC's Sense, which is both a UI and application platform, is the most impressive of the Android devices, said Hazelton.

But, RIM also has to keep an eye on what HP will do with its newly acquired Palm business. Hazelton suggests HP will push Palm's webOS to new touch screen devices. Palm's Linux based OS reduces the use of text menus, boosting the appeal of touch-driven menus with icons.

Also looming is Microsoft. RIM has to consider the re-entry of Microsoft into the smartphone market in the fourth quarter of 2010 with Windows Phone 7.


Blackberry, RIM, Research In Motion, BlackBerry OS, BlackBerry OS 6