NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Earlier this week, journalists attending Research in Motion's ( RIMM) annual developer conference for BlackBerry had a chance to play with the latest build of BlackBerry 10, which is set to be released in the first quarter of 2013, after at least a one-year delay. The product shows good promise, but it's way too early to draw any conclusions given that the product was simply not close to finished yet.The upside scenario for RIM is that BlackBerry 10 bests Android from Google ( GOOG), iOS from Apple ( AAPL) and Windows 8 from Microsoft ( MSFT) in terms of offering a better user interface paradigm, especially for workers focusing on productivity. Conceptually, in my view, Google may be ahead of Microsoft, which may in turn be ahead of Apple. But there is still room to improve the smartphone user interface. The hurdles facing RIM in this challenge are dramatically high. In particular, there are two hurdles: 1. For RIM, it's probably not enough to be equal to Apple, Google and Microsoft -- or even to deliver something that is only slightly better. The ecosystem lock-in is significant -- in particular considering the installed smartphone user bases of Apple and Google right now -- and RIM isn't offering many of the other components of the cloud services. 2. It's not just about the handheld device anymore. For example, Google has the best maps, Google Voice, Gmail, Drive, Google+, Calendar, a line of PCs (Chromebooks), Reader, a search engine, YouTube, Finance and more. Apple has iTunes, iCloud, PCs (Macs), Apple TV and media players (iPods). Microsoft has PCs, the xBox, Office, Hotmail and more. RIM has . . . a smartphone and a tablet. With all of these odds against it, RIM cannot make a critical mistake in launching BlackBerry 10. Remember that RIM made at least three critical mistakes in the past four years: 1. RIM launched otherwise decent devices (for its time) such as the Curve 8900, which you could only buy on two-year carrier contracts. However, the trackball (thumb navigation) had a tendency to fail after about a year or so, plus or minus, and after one year you no longer had a warranty. Users were then faced with having to buy a new device for $500 or so in order to live out their two-year contracts. This made many users angry, and they switched to iPhone and never looked back.
2. RIM launched the PlayBook tablet in April 2011 without native applications for email, contacts, calendar and so forth. They assumed that people would access this information through their BlackBerry. The problem here was that many users had already ditched their BlackBerry for an iPhone or Android, and this usage scenario therefore was simply out of touch with reality. As a result, the journalistic corps laughed RIM out of the room and the PlayBook became a commercial failure. 3. Another mistake with the PlayBook launch was that it left a hole open for surfing the web through the "Bridge" connection with the BlackBerry without the carriers being able to control or charge for this functionality. Rightly or wrongly, this upset carriers such as AT&T ( T) and Verizon ( VZ) greatly, and both companies scrapped their launch plans last minute as a result. Remember, this was January/February 2011, before the first Android 3.0 tablet had been made available, and RIM could have been a significant alternative to Android had it not screwed this up. With that sad trip down memory lane as a quick refresh (or cold shower), it looks like RIM is about to make critical mistake No. 4 in conjunction with the launch of BlackBerry 10.
Imagine if Steve Jobs had told the consumers in 1997 that "I'm going to launch a revolutionary new device. It's called the iMac or the iPod. If you buy it, you have to sign a two-year contract with a carrier for $90 or whatever per month." Had Steve Jobs done that, Apple probably would never have lived to see the iPhone, let alone the iPad, because nobody would have bought the iPod or the iMac, and Apple would have gone bankrupt in 2001 or 2002. Companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft can get away with forcing consumers into buying SIM-locked devices now because they have staying power. People know that those three companies will be around forever, pumping billions of dollars into further development. RIM doesn't have that luxury right now. RIM will be asking consumers in the first quarter of 2013 to place a bet on a whole new operating system. Given where RIM finds itself in the market right now, it can't do that while relying on carrier distribution exclusively. RIM needs to sell devices directly to the consumer.