When the BB10 makes its debut in 2013, the barriers for consumers to jump back into the RIM ecosystem will be low. As Android gains market share and the smartphone platform market diversifies, cracks have appeared in Apple's armour. Before consumers recommit to buying another slew of Apple products, they may well decide it's time to investigate the other options.
But RIM has a long road to travel if it wants to win consumers back to the BlackBerry. All of the recent talk of distribution channels and margins is well and good, but before BB10 devices are unveiled in January, investors will have to confront what few analysts seem willing to address: how people feel about the brand. The public's distaste for the BlackBerry is well-documented in articles like the New York Times' infamous 'BlackBerry shame' piece in October. What will it take to convince customers that the stigma is no longer deserved?
To be sure, the launch of the PlayBook tablet was the nadir for RIM's brand, an embarrassing rejection of what should have been a slam-dunk device for their once-eager fan base. The PlayBook was well received at CES, and seemed on track for a strong debut. But the seeds of the PlayBook's failure – and CrackBerry addicts' eventual turning away from RIM in general – were sown long before, in the damage that user frustration over RIM's phones did to the BlackBerry brand.
The BlackBerry became the smartphone equivalent of parachute pants not merely because Apple's iPhone is more attractively designed, but because RIM's software failed to stay in step with the competition. Engadget editor Joanna Stern summarized the feelings of millions of BB users with a post in December, 2010: As an avid fan for six years, Ms. Stern was losing faith with her Curve 8530 (then only a year old).
"How many times did a friend with an iPhone or an EVO look up a bar or restaurant using Google Maps at least a minute faster than me? At least 100. How long would I wait for my phone to reboot after installing an app? A solid four to five minutes without fail. How many times did I open my laptop and jump on 3G to look at a website, just to avoid having to wait until it would load on my phone? Believe me, more than I care to admit."
Finding the Torch to be little improved, Ms. Stern opted for an Android phone. By the time the PlayBook came out, users who already hated their BlackBerrys saw that, despite the thumbs-up at CES, the tablet wasn't such a home run that it was worth staying tied to the RIM ecosystem for. If ever there was a time to jump to Apple or Android – and finally learn how to use a touch-screen keyboard – this was probably it. And many did just that.
Today, the iPhone no longer has such an enormous advantage over the competition, and the company has stumbled in recent months; the iPhone5's new docking connector has irritated users, who will have to replace all of their old peripherals (chargers, speaker docks, etc.) in order for them to work with the new phone.
To lure users back, RIM needs to convince them that the new BlackBerry isn't merely adequate, or that its features and its price are truly competitive: that's just what they have to do to erase the stigma. The PlayBook was all of those things, and it wasn't enough to keep users from deserting the RIM camp.
For the brand to be exciting again, BB10 has to differentiate itself the way the BlackBerry once did with a physical keyboard, or the way Samsung has with the Galaxy S3's large screen. To win back even a few early adopters, the phone has to be downright irresistible. And that's a very high bar to jump.