At Research In Motion's recent Wireless Enterprise Symposium (WES 2010), company co-CEO Mike Lazaridis introduced BlackBerry 6, the next version of RIM's operating system, calling it "the biggest step forward for the BlackBerry experience in our history."
Still, aside from the fact that the operating system, expected in Q3 2010, adds new touchscreen functionality (including multi-touch support), Lazaridis didn't provide many details.
"BlackBerry 6 is an all-new user experience guided by a few fundamental design principles," Lazaridis said. "First, it had to feel fresh, yet familiar. It had to be a novel experience, yet still be instantly recognizable to anyone who's fallen in love with BlackBerry. Second, it had to be easy to use, yet incredibly powerful... and finally, it had to be fun and approachable."
IDC research vice president Stephen Drake says Lazaridis' first principle is essential. "The key is to keep the BlackBerry look and feel, yet make it much more elegant and more attractive to the user... They had to make sure it stayed within the boundaries of what people knew and liked about BlackBerry, yet create this newer, fresher UI," he says.
RIM's main challenge, Drake says, lies in continuing to meet business users' needs while making the device more approachable for consumers.
"Certainly, consumers are a huge growth driver for them, but they've got a very strong base of business customers that they obviously want to continue to keep," Drake says. "So it's a mix of creating something that's good looking, that's fresh, that makes it interesting and exciting to use -- yet still has to be functional and valuable to that business user."
Analysys Mason principal analyst Steve Hilton says RIM is well positioned to meet that challenge. "RIM is a pretty nimble company... and honestly, having all those enterprise customers is something to relish," he says. "It's much easier trying to keep them happy coming up with new solutions than trying to be the new kid on the block and winning over all of that business."
At the same time, Chris Hazelton, research director at The 451 Group, says there's no question that RIM does have its sights set on Apple. "They are going after iPhone... so OS 6 will deliver on some of the pain points that the current OS has," he says.
One of those pain points, Hazelton says, is the touchscreen experience on the BlackBerry Storm and Storm2. "It's a guess, but I think SurePress will go to just a full software solution, not hardware -- and then that way you have a device that is very touch-sensitive and an OS that's very touch-based in terms of navigation," he says.
While a good touchscreen experience can be attractive for many reasons, Hazelton says there's one key use case that stands out for enterprise users: Excel spreadsheets. "With touch, you point to exactly what you want with your finger, and so you're able to quickly move from one section of the screen to the other -- without going down 10 rows and over three with a trackball or trackpad," he says.
Still, as ABI Research senior analyst Michael Morgan points out, one of RIM's greatest strengths has long been the usability of its physical keyboards. "Most of their devices use a QWERTY keyboard, and they don't necessarily want to change that... so I expect to see some design elements that are going to support both touchscreen and QWERTY devices," he says.
Ultimately, Morgan says, it's important to note that RIM is really the last major handset manufacturer to make these kinds of updates. "At this point, every other handset maker has gone on to the next phase -- large touchscreen communication-focused UIs, powerful chipsets -- everyone's already done that," he says.
"RIM is the one company I've seen that has yet to take it to the next level," Morgan says. "And they're going to have to do that with OS 6."