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RIM's BlackBerry OS 6 may be too late to fend off Apple

New browser and revamped interface not enough

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RIM has been under rising pressure to deliver a significant update to its ageing operating system, so it came as no surprise that BlackBerry OS 6.0 was unveiled at its Wireless Enterprise Symposium this week. The upgraded OS will be officially launched in the third quarter and claims to be the biggest refresh in several years, though details remain fairly limited and there are still serious doubts that it will be able to prevent Apple ousting RIM from its second position in the smartphone segment.

As expected, it will tap into the trend for the browser to morph into the OS, and for most apps to run in the browser and with constant access to the cloud. Successful implementation could put RIM in the forefront of this trend, leapfrogging the iPhone and Android, though having an advanced open web/browser strategy has not done Palm's webOS too much good. But it will be important to remain relevant as cloud-oriented mobile platforms like Google Chrome OS and Nokia/Intel MeeGo emerge.

As well as the improved WebKit browser, BlackBerry OS 6.0 will have a whole new and more intuitive user interface, according to co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. This will include greater support for homescreens that can be customized by the user or operator, more focus on widgets, and a revamped media player, all of these changes being applicable to touchscreen and trackball devices. Lazaridis said: "We're trying to update the UI and fix the stuff that people wanted us to fix."

All this should help BlackBerry devices look more like iPhones or Androids, and help with RIM's bid to gain significant market share among high-end consumers, to add to its traditional enterprise base. The first step will be to build new momentum around the BlackBerry developer platform and application store, which has so far generated little enthusiasm. RIM has always said it would focus on quality not quantity in its BlackBerry App World store, but must have hoped for more than the 6,000 apps it currently houses.

RIM says the store now numbers almost one million downloads a day and it will work to make it easier for developers to create software for its platform, though it cannot escape the view, held by many, that it needs to go open source in order to keep programmers interested and hold its own in the world of Android and open Symbian. It remains to be seen whether its new OS does more than just play catch-up in areas like UI and multimedia - or whether RIM needs to accept that its consumer appeal has largely peaked, and its strength will remain in the business world.

To sum up the key promised features, BlackBerry OS 6.0 will come with the updated graphical UI, which extends the black OS 5.0 theme with new animations; the new browser, with multiple sessions and tabbed browsing; multiple views for apps, such as 'favorites' and 'media'; context sensitive pop-up menus; multitouch, including pinch-to-zoom in the browser and photos; universal search; a new app to draw on feeds from both RSS and social media; the updated media player. Most of BlackBerry's core apps will be redesigned for 6.0.

Copyright © 2010, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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