Questions RIM’s BBX Will Have To Answer

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RIM’s new BBX operating system looks interesting, but it will have to give us more information soon, says Nicholas Kolakowski

Research In Motion’s upcoming BBX operating system will operate on both smartphones and tablets, making the company the latest to jump into the unified OS pool.

Microsoft is already in that pool with the upcoming Windows 8, which will run on both tablets and PCs. Google will soon release its “Ice Cream Sandwich” Android build, unifying its tablets and smartphones on a common platform. And Apple’s iOS powers both the iPhone and iPad.

RIM had no choice but to join the rest

In light of that, RIM really had no choice but to follow suit. However, the transition to BBX raises thorny questions for the company, even as it pins its hopes on the upcoming operating system’s ability to better compete with iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

BBX will apparently “support applications developed using any of the tools available today for the BlackBerry PlayBook,” according to an 18 October statement released by the company, “including native SDK, Adobe AIR/Flash and WebWorks/HTML5, as well as the BlackBerry Runtime for Android Apps.”

That hints that BBX will interoperate with the PlayBook (whose operating system features the same QNX base being used to construct BBX). It’s a bigger question, though, whether those buying BlackBerry devices loaded with BlackBerry 7 OS—or those who already own older BlackBerry hardware—will have the ability to upgrade to the new operating system once it rolls out. Both Apple and Google have traditionally offered a way for owners of older iOS and Android devices to upgrade to new versions of their respective operating systems; Microsoft, on the other hand, severed all compatibility between its antiquated Windows Mobile and its newer Windows Phone.

What about the applications?

The other question involves applications. RIM is offering the developer beta of its BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0, which gives developers the ability to port Android applications onto the tablets. The move carries some risks for RIM: While it could increase the popularity of the platform by vastly expanding the ecosystem of available applications, it also risks alienating those developers who poured so much time and effort into developing BlackBerry applications. There’s also the danger of blurring those lines that define RIM as a unique entity, creating branding confusion.

RIM has offered precious few details about BlackBerry BBX’s user interface or release date. This stands in sharp contrast to some other recent conferences, such as Microsoft’s Build, which accompanied a detailed drill-down into an upcoming platform (in Microsoft’s case, Windows 8) with the unveiling of hardware loaded with same. Google and Apple have also offered regular timelines regarding their software updates. That uncertainty on RIM’s part could potentially harm its reputation with developers and enterprise customers, both of whom like to roadmap out their upgrades and projects over a longer time horizon.

It does mean that, over the next year, RIM will likely need to make a hard case for BBX in order to make the operating system stand out over the others on the market. That’s in the face of some significant headwinds: For the past few quarters, the company has wrestled with declining revenues and low sales of its older BlackBerry devices.

It’s also in the midst of damage control over a global outage of BlackBerry services that lasted nearly a week. Whether it can overcome all that and triumph in the face of substantial competition from Google, Apple and Microsoft is anyone’s guess.

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