Stop me if this story sounds familiar:
A once-dominant entity in the United States suddenly finds that its main opponent has surpassed it in overall popularity. Modern Americans just aren't taking to its output the way they used to, and the ideas that the entity champions, once so popular and en vogue, now seem quaint and old-fashioned to many. Widely considered to have stranded itself in the past while its opponents have sprinted into the future, the entity decides that it is time to retool and recalibrate. A transformation that will make it more palatable to a greater number of Americans is under way, though many doubt whether such a transformation will eventually garner results.
Surprise! I'm talking about two different things. The vaguely-worded above scenario, in fact, describes two erstwhile giants of American culture: the Republican Party and BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM).
RIM and the GOP have, in their own separate ways, both found themselves needing to adapt. The GOP's widespread defeats on Election Night have caused party leaders to reconsider some of the main tenets of their platform. Research In Motion, meanwhile, has seen its BlackBerry smartphone go from the must-have smash hit of the early 2000s to something of a relic in 2012. Both are at (sorry, Karl Rove!) a crossroads.
RIM is now officially nearing its conclusion to a new identity. In fact, on Monday morning the company announced its day of reckoning as Jan. 30, the date on which both the finished version of the BlackBerry 10 platform, its updated operating system designed to rejuvenate the company's withering smartphone lineup, as well as the first devices running this new OS, will be shown off to the world.
Mark it on your calendars: Jan. 30 will be the day we begin to learn how RIM will react to its grand defeat, whether it will disappear or reemerge victorious and more powerful than ever.
As it stands now, the former route appears more likely. The typical story goes that BB10 represents RIM's last chance to once again regain relevancy in a smartphone market that has transformed greatly while Research In Motion has remained motionless. The iPhone and various Android devices completely uprooted the status quo, destroying Palm and largely rendering the once-cool BlackBerry into something undesirable. Many analysts, pundits and rubberneckers have been unimpressed by the glimpses they've had at BB10.
A BB10 failure would be disastrous for RIM, whose BlackBerry is alluring to a rapidly diminishing crowd. Nowadays, a BlackBerry is not a voluntary purchase but rather something that mammoth corporations (who are people, my friend) force employees to carry around. The BlackBerry has become something that a boss mandates upon an employee, like a formal dress code or a 6:30 a.m. wake-up time. Most Americans would rather wear comfortable clothes and roll out of bed at 10, just like most Americans are opting for iPhones and Androids.
RIM couldn't possibly remain relevant by appealing to such a tiny demographic (no party can), and so it had to return to a (quite literal) drawing board.
The company has emerged, after its acquisition of software company QNX in 2010, with an improved touchscreen interface, mapping application, on-screen keyboard and other enhancements, all of which will be available on the forthcoming BB10. RIM CEO Thorsten Heins recently predicted that the operating system gives BlackBerry "a clear shot at being number three," behind Android and iOS in the smartphone market.
If it cannot, the BlackBerry brand is in danger of entering the same space as MySpace or Netscape Navigator, modern shorthands for bygone technologies. (The Republican Party, for what it's worth, is in no danger of going the way of Bull Moose anytime soon).
For BlackBerry, I'm afraid, Bull Moose-dom seems a real possibility. BB10, which Research In Motion has demoed at several events around the country, appears to be less of an operating system that revolutionizes the smartphone or ignites a consumer sea change than an update that partially catches BlackBerry up to its Google and Apple rivals. We still haven't seen the actual phones that will run BB10, but unless RIM's labs have Frankenstein-ed some kind of miracle device together, there's reason to be skeptical. RIM executives have pointed to available market share and demographic information, but they might just be doing math that makes them, as RIM executives, feel better.
January will host both the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama and what may be the last gasp of Research In Motion. It will be a down month for Republicans, to be sure, and it could be one for RIM's top dogs, too, if BB10 does not offer the jumpstart the stagnant BlackBerry OS badly needs.
Will it work? RIM's leaders and corporate mouthpieces remain optimistic, but unfortunately for them, if a company cannot deliver a truly innovative, modern and desired product, the consumer market -- much like the American electorate -- tends to have a way of shutting that whole "corporate optimism" thing down.
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