New PlayBook operating system will bring Android apps; BB10 will bring much need revitalization of phone line

From talking about "baking cookies" to drawing Saturday morning cartoon characters, smartphone maker Research in Motion, Ltd.'s (TSE:RIM) has been behaving a bit erratically of late.  The troubled company is still solidly profitable, but has seen its sales and profits plunge in recent months as its business user-heavy customer has defected to Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android or Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone.  In the U.S. it had sunk to a mere 4.5 percent of purchases by December 2011.  The sales flops have forced a long overdue CEO change, bumping company co-founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie out of the top spot.

I. "London" is a Full-touch Screen RIM Superphone

But for all the negativity surrounding RIM, the company appears to be in a position much like its Finnish phonemaker peer Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V), in that it appears to have realized its sales issues and committed to delivering exciting products.  The first of those exciting products just leaked, under the code-name "London".

An ad proclaims:

RIM London
[Image Source: NeoWin]

The phone could indeed be a game-changer if RIM can deliver the polished OS to back it.  While the specs have not been announced yet, the phone in look allow is instantly appealing, bring to mind the popular iPhone and Droid Razr from Motorola.  RIM has upped the ante over its rivals, though, completely eliminating the physical face button.

Rumored hardware includes either a Texas Instruments, Inc. (TXN) or a Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM) dual-core 1.5 GHz ARM processor.  The devices reportedly will carry 16 GB of NAND flash (expandable), 1 GB of DRAM, an 8 MP rear facing camera w/ flash, and 2 MP front-facing video-chat camera.

The still of the OS shows a rich tile-driven music app, although it’s hard to say whether this look extends to the rest of RIM's new smartphone operating system -- BlackBerry 10.  

We're hoping it does, as tiles seem to be the cutting edge of user design and graphical appeal.  While Apple (for now) is sticking to its homely grid of apps, Android has move deeper into the land of rich GUIs and tiles with the release of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.  It is following in the footsteps of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) who has been offering a rich tile-driven GUI experience since day one with Windows Phone.

RIM struggled in its earliest attempts at a touchscreen phone, with the buggy Storm.  By contrast the Torch and Torch 2 were much more solid efforts, though they suffered in sales.  However, the Torch and Torch 2 fell back on RIM's strong physical keyboard and optical trackpads.  RIM has shown promise with late 2011 BB 7.0 all-touch implementations of its popular lines, the BlackBerry Bold Curve 9380 and the BlackBerry Torch 9860 (commonly called the "BlackBerry Touch").  Both launched in Nov. 2011.  To that end RIM's "London" will be RIM's first all-touch line since the Storm, but hopes to build on more successful later touch variants like the Curve 9380 and Torch 9860.

Torch 2 v. Torch 1
London is RIM's first high-end smartphone since last year's Torch 2 (left) and its first full-touch (no keyboard) line since the ill-fated BlackBerry Storm. [Image Source: Engadget]

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  It is unknown when "London" will launch, but the leak of advertising suggest it will likely land early in H2 2012.  That is a comfort to RIM's contingent of supporters, who have suffered through their fair share of pessimistic news in recent months.

Much like the Nokia Lumia 900, RIM's BB10 London is the company's game-changer, its next generation superphone.  This will be one topic to watch extremely closely as the launch approaches.

II. PlayBook OS 2.0 -- At Last, Android Apps!

In related news, RIM is preparing a major update to its tablet operating system.  

RIM's first bid at the tablet market -- the RIM PlayBook -- had relatively strong hardware and some good features.  But overall it was a disappointment in that it lacked the built in business email client, business calendar app, and other features that RIM's business-oriented user base have come to expect.  The device was a sales flop, forcing RIM to cut its financial outlook.

But in a way the OS represented RIM making a painful, but necessary change -- moving away from business services and into the consumer app space.  By switching to push email, RIM is signaling that it may start to shift its smartphone lineup away from dedicated business email services and towards the traditional push email used by Android and iOS.  This is a good thing, from a consumer standpoint, as it removes a largely needless $10 USD/month (or more with taxes) "BlackBerry tax".  In that regard one of the PlayBook's most criticized omissions may actually be a sign of positive change.

On the other hand, the platform's lack of apps has made it the equivalent of the ill-fated Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQwebOS TouchPad. At last count there were only around 4,000-5,000 apps, with a couple thousand more sitting in the submissions process.

Lack of apps can spell a quick death for a platform.

RIM is looking to ensure that it does not become the next webOS, preparing to roll out PlayBook OS 2.0.  This new operating system's biggest addition is BlackBerry Runtime for Android Apps -- a featured initially promised during launch hype for the PlayBook, but pulled at the last minute.

BlackBerry Runtime allows developers to quickly and painlessly repackage Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread") or earlier apps to work on the tablet.  In doing so, it opens up the door to 200,000+ apps.  Of course, the one fly in the ointment is that developers have to go out and physically port their apps.  To that end, the net gain will like be in the tens, not hundreds, of thousands of apps.  Another minor annoyance is that RIM is forcing developers to remove all references of "Android" from their apps -- including in-game.

RIM Playbook
RIM's PlayBook will finally get Android apps. [Image Source: Venture Beat]

RIM also is encouraging developers to take the time to make a more platform-optimized port using a trio of alternative tools -- BlackBerry Plug-in for ADT, the BlackBerry Packager for Android apps and the BlackBerry SDK for Android apps.

Like BB10, PlayBook OS 2.0 is rooted in QNX, the real-time Unix-like operating system that RIM acquired in 2010.  In that sense PlayBook OS 2.0 is sort of like the "cousin" of BB10.

PlayBook OS 2.0 looks to mend broken fences with the first PlayBook OS, by rolling out an improved unified email client, capable of multi-tasking, and a new calendar client.  RIM has not clarified yet, whether these services will remain free, but it seems a strong likelihood.

So far, over two quarters of sale, RIM has moved about 700,000 PlayBooks.  While this a respectable total, it is mere twentieth of what Apple sells in a single quarter.  RIM is clearly hopeful that PlayBook OS 2.0 changes that.

With the iPad 3 hype starting to build, its critical that RIM is making these changes at this time to stay competitive.

PlayBook OS 2.0 will land before the end of February.

Update 1 -- 2/2/2012 1:05 p.m.--
The Storm was erroneously listed as RIM's last all-touch smartphone.  While it was RIM's last all-touch line, the RIM BlackBerry Bold Curve 9380 and BlackBerry Torch 9860 (sometimes referred to as the "Touch") are both all-touch.

We have corrected to reflect that the lineup will be the first to go all-touch since the Storm 1/2, but that there are current all-touch models available. (Thanks Andrew!)

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