Jan. 29, 2013 -- For years, Research in Motion (RIM) has watched the BlackBerry fall from its once vaunted position as an efficient, e-mail crunching machine atop the smartphone heap in North America.
Early challengers such as the Palm Treo and Windows Mobile showed some of the potential of apps and touchscreens. But Apple's iPhone, which obliterated the object of RIM's tactile typing affection to make room for finger-friendly manipulation, eventually set off the app race that would ultimately leave the Blackberry looking bereft.
After acquiring a number of companies, though, including one to build a strong technical platform and another to create user interface wizardry, tomorrow RIM will reveal its Blackberry 10 operating system.
Like the Mac's OS X a decade ago, Blackberry 10 represents that rare opportunity in technology, the chance to clean the slate and start anew. It provides a chance to build a platform that, in keeping with its name, should sustain the company's main product line for a life cycle of 10 years.
The short-term bad news is that there's no way that Blackberry 10 will close the app gap with Apple and Google right out of the gate. There are simply too many key apps.
Microsoft, which has a long history in courting developers and which has invested heavily in wooing apps to RIM's rival Windows Phone, is only now on the verge of filling in many of the key apps lacking on that platform more than two years and one major revision after its debut.
But there are still many things RIM can do to generate excitement regarding its operating system and the devices that it may debut along with it.
Focus on the looks. One of the many missteps RIM made in the run-up to Blackberry 10 was trying to improve upon touchscreens by adding a clickable surface (see the BlackBerry Storm). It sounded good in theory, but it worked completely differently than the way people expect touchscreens to work.
With RIM now playing on the same playing field as other mobile operating systems, it can use materials and design to set the Blackberry apart. Superior aesthetics must apply to RIM's software as well as its devices.
Ensure it can do things better. The precursor to Blackberry 10, which ran on RIM's unpopular and generic Playbook tablet, provided a smooth, fluid user interface, but so does the competition these days. RIM has offered a peek at how the new Blackberry can seamlessly glide between tasks without having to return "home" as an iPhone does.
But it must also offer advantages in the key battlegrounds among smartphones today -- search, speech input, photography, maps, payments, Web browsing, sending content to TVs, and easy sharing on social networks.
Make sure it can do better things. RIM will have to move beyond what is done on other smartphones today to introduce some capabilities that either aren't available or aren't integrated into other operating systems or phones. One key could be an easy way of sharing files and contact information with other devices. Samsung has shown some of this with its Galaxy S 3, but because RIM makes both the device and the software that runs it, it has an opportunity to make this standard across all Blackberry 10 devices.
Keep the faith. One reason for RIM's decline has been its focus on enterprise software and security that is important to corporate IT managers but less so to many consumers. RIM faces an exceptional challenge in creating the sizzle while keeping the trust that makes it a favored vendor in tightly managed IT environments, and preserving as much as it can of the experience even when IT clamps down.
None of these things by themselves will guarantee the success of Blackberry 10 or RIM devices based on it. But if RIM can raise eyebrows across at least some of them, it has a shot of restoring interest from consumers. It must first end the market share bleeding and win back those who once were addicted to their "Crackberrys." That should pave the way for greater developer support it will need to move beyond the loyalists and remain viable.