Why BlackBerry Needs Real Innovation, and How Boston Can Help

Opinion

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its function-centric devices compromise the user experience for other emerging consumer needs like multimedia entertainment and mobile gaming, which are forecast to yield $77 billion in combined revenues by 2012. Devices like the Palm Pre and Motorola Droid seemed to have this solved for now, albeit with a slightly thicker form factor. Now you can have the best of both worlds, a viewable screen that extends the length of the device and an accessible QWERTY keyboard hidden underneath.

How Boston Can Help

So is the solution as simple as that? Not quite. First, this is a short-term “patch.” Second, BlackBerry has plenty of catch up to do in its user interface. In the medium to longer term, these efforts will fall far short in a head-to-head battle with Apple + Google. No, BlackBerry needs iPhonesque disruption. Where better to look than a city quickly becoming a mecca for mobile?

Boston is home to two best-of-breed speech recognition technology companies, Nuance Communications (NASDAQ: NUAN), a publicly traded company whose market cap is greater than $4 billion and whose roots date back to 1992, and Vlingo Corporation, a Cambridge-based startup backed by Yahoo!, AT&T, Charles River Ventures and Sigma Partners, among others. Until now, the term “hands-free” was really a misnomer; you couldn’t accomplish much without your device in hand. But with advances in both text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology, these companies have developed commercially viable services that allow you to speak commands to your mobile device, have them spoken back to you for validation, and in some cases, receive responses and updates by voice.

Currently Nuance offers Dragon Dictation & Search for iPhone, but the company will undoubtedly come out with Android and BlackBerry apps before long. Vlingo is already available for BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia S60 and Windows Mobile devices, with specific functionality varying by platform. The most feature-rich app is Vlingo Plus for BlackBerry, which allows customers to use voice for any task where they’d normally have to type. Both Dragon and Vlingo are shockingly accurate in deciphering speech even with a moderate level of background or ambient noise. Even as third-party apps, there’s a whole lot of value to the user. Now imagine if BlackBerry deeply integrated the technology into its operating system and invested in its continued advancement.

Will physical and/or virtual keyboards disappear any time soon? Not likely. But in my view the Nuance and Vlingo apps are the types of productivity applications that could serve as catalysts for BlackBerry to re-emerge as an innovator, charting its own path to success.

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Jonathan Michaeli is former vice president of marketing for Boston-area startups Gather.com and Panraven and Israel-based WorldMate. Follow @

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17 responses to “Why BlackBerry Needs Real Innovation, and How Boston Can Help”

  1. Roger says:

    What a load of baloney!
    Blackberry does the important things (the things I spend 90% of my time doing on a phone) better than any other phone on the market and that is true for the rest of the early majority (and late majority). Plus, there are over 5,000 apps on Blackberry App World and that is more than enough, especially since the most important ones (ie. the ones I tend to use every day) run better on Blackberry. Most of the apps for iphone are low quality junk. It’s like a flea market. Who cares if it has more junk to offer. I want quality, not junk.

  2. Roger,

    Thank you for your reply and expressing your opinion.

    You may find it useful to look at the results of this LinkedIn poll, where the question is “If you had to pick one: iPhone or BlackBerry?” –
    http://polls.linkedin.com/p/69567/vanyz

    Cheers,
    Jon

  3. I have been an avid Blackberry fanatic for a decade. When given the opportunity to get an iPod touch, I decided to do it just to prove to my smug iPhone friends that their loyalty was misplaced.

    I was wrong, they were right. After a couple of months, I can’t wait for the iPhone to become available on my carrier. Yeah, typing speed on the iPod Touch is slower than the Blackberry. But the device more than makes up for it in every other way. Just consider the saved sync time—it syncs effortlessly and wirelessly with my Mac contacts and calendar. The Blackberry, using “Missing Sync” or the RIM-supplied Blackberry Desktop takes over an hour to sync my 3,000-person contact book, and often crashes 45 minutes into the sync.

    Snapiness of the device itself is another factor. Yeah, the iPod touch doesn’t multitask. That keeps it responsive enough that when I need its main features, they’re always instantaneously on and available. With my Blackberry Curve 8900, half the time I want to make a call, I get the “wait while I think” spinning ball. When I check the open apps, there are all kinds of things open all the time that I don’t use (the Browser and Blackberry messenger seem to be impossible to shut down), and the basic functions–phone, contacts, and calendar–are sometimes so sluggish that I can pull out my iPod touch and do the lookup before the Blackberry responds.

    Perhaps the Blackberry app store is comparable, but I’ve been able to find an iPod touch app for almost anything I need (ear training, note taking, fitness, games), most of which are inexpensive and well-written.

    Last but not least is the interface. Believe it or not, elegance and beauty make a difference to some people. The iPod Touch wins hands down. It’s a nicer aesthetic experience.

    No one of these things would be enough to get me to switch, but faster, cleaner syncing, snappier response, and a beautiful interface together are enough that the overall iPhone experience is far better for me than Blackberry.

    Interestingly, I’m on the RIM marketing survey mailing list. They send survey after survey and seem to ask about everything except the things that I care about. I get the impression that they’re deeply clueless.

  4. Anon says:

    I disagree with your views. 1) Everyone should be syncing wireless, regardless of BIS or BES. BES has it’s own contact/cal sync as you know, however if you’re on BIS you should be using Google Sync (as in app pre-5.0 or built in with BIS 3.0). 2) You say Blackberry should focus it’s efforts on what it does best, yet you say it should focus it’s efforts on what it does best, which is the essentials of a smart phone (SMS, email, calls etc) yet it should incorporate more usability factors? There is a level of usability vs power that everyone prefers, and people that have chosen Blackberry have gone for the power. It’s like comparing C vs VB/AppleScript(obv incomparable, but bare with me) One is very un-friendly and hard to pick up, and the other is simple and easy to use, however one gives the user near-unlimited amounts of power and the other limits you to what it’s system can do. I’m not saying that the iPhone/Android is limited to it’s applications, I’m just saying that I don’t want it’s pretty loading screens. I don’t want to sit through 4 taps and 3 warpy screen transactions just to turn my wireless off. I don’t want to have 5 actions between viewing different inboxes. I just want my phone to do what I want quickly and effectively, and for that, I would easily sacrifice the millions on R&D to make my phone “look prettier” but make me pull my hair out waiting for it to do what I want it to do.

  5. Wow. Very comprehensive article.

    The people in the comments above are entitled to disagree, but I think you really provided the important data for the whole market, and you’re gonna save me time, which is my concern.

    Thanks.

  6. Stever – Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. It seems we see eye-to-eye in most areas.

    Anon – I appreciate your feedback. On the sync issue, in my view, it shouldn’t take a 3rd party app to make wireless sync possible. I don’t see how BlackBerry is more powerful, aside from multitask. In my experience, iPhone’s elegant and user friendly interface makes most tasks easy and enjoyable. The market has spoken, and cool and slick matters, unless BlackBerry aspires to be a niche player.

    Patrick – Thanks for your kind words.

  7. Chris says:

    Interesting observations, indeed. Thanks for this post.

    We’re proud to be a Boston company developing on the BlackBerry platform. SoftArtisans builds SilverDust, for secure BlackBerry connectivity to SharePoint. http://silverdust.softartisans.com

    Also, another Boston BlackBerry initiative is the New England BlackBerry Developers Group. Our first meeting is 3/16 and Mike Kirkup, Director of Developer Relations for RIM will be joining us as a guest speaker. We’re going to have regular meetings to discuss various BlackBerry-related topics. More info here: http://www.meetup.com/New-England-BlackBerry-Developers/

  8. Hey Jon,
    Great Article! Recently my husband got upgraded to a new Blackberry – and turned to me to ask why I get to have the ‘real’ Internet on my iPhone and he’s still stuck with the AOL version. I’m with you!
    -Sandra

  9. Chris – Thank you for the heads up on the mobile developer event.

    Sandra – Great example. BlackBerry still has the leading share of the US smartphone market, because it’s been around the longest, has penetrated enterprise very well, and makes a dozen devices to cover the spectrum. As a result, they don’t think they have a problem. They need to listen to consumers better!

  10. Disappointed BB user says:

    RIM does not provide with OS updates to previous models leaving users with buggy phones that not possible to upgrade unless buy a new headset
    This cause people to leave BB world with the time

  11. Great article Jon. Agreed on all fronts, and there will likely be a mass exodus with Blackberry users switching to iPhone once the iPhone is available on Verizon! I’ll be first in line, since the phone/network is still my #1 requirement. Apple and Verizon – I hope you’re listening!

  12. I liked how you tied in Boston in this post. I am a Blackberry user myself and while I see the plenty of limitations in the RIM software, I also see potential. Blackberry needs to be more compatible with different operating systems and that means they need to sync wirelessly (without a third party app). Blackberry customers are business people and making their lives easier should be RIM’s number on focus. Improvements on email and calendar syncing are crucial.

    The thing I am fascinated with the most is the popularity RIM has among college students. Who would have thought? Their messaging platform, BBM is a huge draw for students looking to connect instantly with their friends. From what I’ve heard most business professionals don’t use this feature. RIM might want to take advantage of this market and cater to the younger generation.

  13. Alison – I agree. In my view, service reliability is #1 and phone is #2. I only use AT&T, because I traveled abroad extensively with my last employer. Turns out, when I was out of the country, I used a different phone with a local SIM, so it wouldn’t have mattered if my US device was on Verizon’s CDMA network.

    Jennie – Good point. I have heard from others that BBM is a highly used feature among Gen Y’ers.

  14. I am a BlackBerry Bold user. I run a small boutique marketing services company and the executives all use BB’s. Our creative types all use iPhones. I’ve tried them, but find myself struggling with the lack of a real keypad on the iPhone. Our shop develops apps for both platforms and the real issue with the BB is all the !$@#!$ form factors and operating systems. RIM has a real challenge in trying to support all the form factors and old OS’s out there.

    Regarding wireless syncing… We have BES (love it) and now it’s free! RIM has clearly failed to communicate this effectively. See http://na.blackberry.com/eng/services/business/server/express/?CPID=OTC-RFBPSE

    Gotta love the BB vs. iPhone holy war!

  15. Thank you Marty. Great point about needing to support the various screen resolutions. This was also a real challenge for WorldMate, my last employer.

    I think RIM making BES available for free is a warning sign Apple is and will continue to make serious inroads in enterprise. Unfortunately, BES still isn’t a practical solution for individuals.