When the iPhone was announced on January 9, 2007, it was the beginning of a revolution in mobile technology. It was lauded by some, denounced by many, and stirred debate well beyond the comfortable confines of the tech world. The iPhone OS, now iOS, disrupted everything we as users knew about interface and interaction with a mobile device. Apple would go on to define the modern smartphone with the iPhone, the tablet with the iPad, and would even re-define their own immensely successful take on the mobile media device with the iPod Touch. The competition has been scrambling ever since, but in many ways has not just caught up to, but passed the innovations that Apple initially put forward.
And here we are today, with the announcement of the brand new BlackBerry 10 operating system a few hours away. The combination of this complete overhaul from RIM and the final death rattle of Symbian last week make iOS the oldest of the primary mobile operating systems. Unfortunately, I would have to admit that iOS 6.1 looks the part far too much. The only noticeable differences I can see looking at the home screen of my iPhone 5 today are folders and an extra row of icons. Alongside its contemporaries, it definitely looks stale at this point. While that doesn’t make me want to jump ship from iOS, six years of Springboard design atrophy has definitely contributed to a number of defections from the Apple camp.
I do find it ironic that RIM, along with Microsoft, was one of the primary detractors of the iPhone and iOS for those first few years. RIM’s leadership sat on its market share lead and enterprise appeal, and figured that the touchscreen fad would eventually fade. When it became increasingly clear that this “fad” was really a full-on paradigm shift, RIM began making moves that would turn its co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, into the whipping boys of the tech media for years. First there was the BlackBerry Storm, and later on the Torch. Both were abysmal failures that couldn’t match up to iOS or Android.
After those missteps BlackBerry seemed to be stuck in an unstoppable downward spiral. From Super Apps (or an extreme lack thereof), to the Playbook, to a couple of crippling network outages, RIM just couldn’t catch a break. They have struggled to keep the Playbook, which was their first device built with their new QNX based OS, up to date since its release, and have delayed the release of BlackBerry 10 to the point that many thought RIM would be bought out or cease to exist, and it would never actually ship.
But here we are. They did pull out of that death spiral and survived to release BlackBerry 10. Co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie finally resigned amid increasing pressure from RIM’s board and investors, and Thorsten Heins became the new CEO in January of last year. He has taken action to stop the bleeding at RIM, and re-focus the company on producing enough legacy products to serve both their remaining loyal customer base, as well as their descent sales in emerging markets, and on getting their new OS and devices right. While it remains to be seen if this strategy will ultimately be successful, Heins has to at least be credited with righting the ship, stabilizing the stock price, and giving RIM a chance to survive as an independent company.
Despite how it holds up under the scrutiny of the tech press and increasingly savvy smartphone users, BlackBerry 10 does have some really solid and innovative ideas. The gesture controls that RIM has implemented look like a fresh way of approaching navigation and one-handed device control on the large screen phones that are becoming increasingly popular today. And as for multitasking, it looks like BB10 bests what is currently available from iOS and Windows Phone, and may even be superior to Android in this respect. While this new OS isn’t necessarily revolutionary, BlackBerry 10, like Windows Phone before it, does blaze its own trail. It isn’t just a cheap knock off of iOS or Android. The real irony of this situation is that, this new direction stands in such contrast to how cumbersome and frozen in time elements of RIM’s older OS versions seemed, and the sharp, but completely misguided rhetoric from their former executives. It may be too late, but they have finally broken with the past and moved forward.
Now we’ve come full circle, and back to iOS. There was a time, before the release of the iPhone, that RIM was the dominant force in smartphone technology. They had the market share, and they had the enterprise almost all to themselves. Who would have thought that Apple would pose the threat that they did to the BlackBerry back in 2007? As with Nokia, RIM’s misadventures should serve as a cautionary tale to any company that thinks it is too large and powerful to falter. Failure to innovate can absolutely destroy a company’s position, and in the fast moving world of mobile technology, the sands can pass through the hourglass fast enough to make your head spin.
With the loss of Steve Jobs, the tumbling stock price, executive shakeups and the sharp criticism over issues with Maps, Apple has some reason to re-evaluate right now. The old reality distortion field is down at the moment, and the tech press, well, they do love to pile on when given the opportunity. The only thing they seem to enjoy more than lauding a company that is riding high, is kicking it when it’s down. For evidence of this fact, just look at the numerous reports of Apple’s decline in the wake of one of the most successful quarters of any company in recent history.
The problem with Apple today isn’t lack of profits or market share. It isn’t even a lack of mind share. However, they have taken a hit to something that is critical to the image that Steve Jobs so carefully cultivated after his return in 1996. There was a cool factor to the majority of the products Apple released while he was at the helm, but that isn’t the whole story, either. There was a TRUST that became part of the Apple culture. Users could trust that both the software and hardware products Apple produced would be of the highest quality, and that they would be worth the price paid for them. Unfortunately, many Apple users today would tell you that trust is either severely damaged or completely gone.
The iPhone 5, iPad Mini, and Retina MacBook Pro are clear evidence that Apple is still holding the line when it comes to hardware. However, the tech business is a “What have you done for me lately” world, and in that kind of environment, failures get a lot more headlines than successes. There have been too many software failures over the last two years to overlook. In my opinion, Apple has no one but themselves to blame for this, because it seems that they lost sight of the goal of making iOS and its accompanying services great products. iOS 6, like Siri before it, seemed to be as much about trying to squeeze Google off its platform, as being the best product that Apple could produce. In the interim, many of the stock iOS apps have gone a long time without an update, style discrepancies have crept in, and the look of the OS has remained stagnant. And while Apple has added some good and very useful features to iOS over the last two years, AirPlay is the only one I would describe as truly great. Siri, iMessage, Facetime, iCloud, and AirPlay Mirroring all have the potential to be great, but they all have flaws and limitations that keep them from getting all the way there.
Apple’s current stationary position stands in sharp contrast to the competition, which as of today, has all moved on in new and different directions. Hopefully, Apple will respond to all of the negativity of the last six months by re-focusing themselves on making great products again, no matter what the competition is doing. That’s what made them so successful in the first place. With their recent management reorganization, my hope is that Apple can take that consistency and iterative innovation from the hardware side, and bring it over to software. With that in mind, Apple’s move to put superstar designer Jony Ive at the head of Human Interface across Apple products doesn’t seem like an accident. After seeing the results of Matias Duarte’s highly positive influence on the design and flow of Android, which was a hot mess before he got there, I have hope that fresh ideas, consistency, and a renewed focus on quality are on the way.
Later today, RIM will finally move in a new direction that they were forced to take, in hopes of saving what is left of their business. I sincerely wish them and their remaining users well. Again, I just hope that Apple will heed this early warning, and not allow history to repeat itself. I would say that I hope I’m never in the position of a current, long suffering BlackBerry user, but that won’t happen. If Apple were to falter for years like RIM, as much as I like Apple products and as much investment I have in iOS, I am too much of a technology fan to become one of those last loyal users, hoping that Apple can turn it around with a Hail Mary. Instead, I’ll be like one of the multitude of former BlackBerry users who has already moved onto a different platform, more than likely to never look back.