BlackBerry 10 tablets and phablets will be copycats, not market disruptors

Credit: Ryan Faas

Last week, along with its quarterly financials, BlackBerry declared that it had sold about one million Z10 devices. The Z10 is the first smartphone to run the new BlackBerry 10 OS that the company announced earlier this year.

One million doesn't seem like a large number when you consider that sales of Apple's iPhone 5 topped five million over its launch weekend and Samsung received nine million pre-orders when it launched the Galaxy S III.

But when you put that up against BlackBerry's PlayBook tablet, which was on the market for over almost a year before hitting the million sales milestone, it shows that BlackBerry has managed to build at least some momentum around its new OS. The company's ability to sustain that momentum, however, is far from certain. In fact, there was little fanfare and no lines the day of the Z10's U.S. launch.

The Z10 isn't going to be alone in the market. Initially, BlackBerry will launch the Q10, which follows the iconic (some might say anachronistic) BlackBerry format -- a roughly square device with a physical keyboard that takes up half of the device resulting in a smaller screen. According to BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins, the company has plans to release additional BlackBerry 10 devices, though there hasn't been any official word about what form factors or types of devices we can expect.

Based on a slide from a BlackBerry roadmap presentation that was leaked via Twitter over the weekend, it looks as if BlackBerry plans to ship three additional devices. One, dubbed the B10, appears to be a wide-screen tablet -- a possible replacement for the PlayBook -- and two devices that appear to be phablets dubbed the U10 and R10. According to the timeline included on the slide, the B10 tablet and U10 phablet will hit the market later this year and the R10 device, which appears sport a physical keyboard will ship early next year.

The devices each seem to be taking on specific niches in the mobile market: the U10 and R10 will go up against on devices like Samsung's Galaxy Note series and other phablets, while the B10 will compete against the iPad, Kindle Fire, and the full range of Android tablets. The B10, which will probably be marketed as a consumer and business device, appears to be slated for release sometime this fall ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Many features of the new BlackBerry 10 OS have been marketed towards business users and enterprise IT, once company's biggest customers. The BlackBerry Balance feature that separates work and personal apps and content certainly appeals to those demographics. Samsung's KNOX platform as well as a range of third-party mobile management solutions offer similar containerization approaches for devices that are used in personal and professional contexts.

Can BlackBerry take on the iPad?

The big question is whether BlackBerry can even get a foothold in the enterprise tablet market, where the iPad is entrenched as the preferred device. One reason the iPad has held onto its lead is that employees want to use it.

Across the board, most mobile technology being adopted in the workplace is selected by employees. That's particularly true when it comes to BYOD where employees are essentially free to choose any device they like, though IT departments offer information or guidance. Even in organizations that still purchase devices for users, there has been a movement away from the traditional BlackBerry model. Increasingly, organizations give users some choice of devices and encourage users to treat the device as their own.

This means that a BlackBerry device must be compelling to consumers. The fact that Apple has outlasted competitors in business tablets for nearly three years illustrates how difficult the task will be for BlackBerry.

The two phablet devices may actually end up being more successful because they will address an area ignored by Apple up till now. Unfortunately, Samsung has had plenty of time to establish and dominate the phablet market almost as effectively as Apple has done in the larger tablet market.

Apple and Samsung have moved the goal posts for IT

IT pros may not be as happy supporting the iPad and dealing with Apple, but many acknowledge that there are tools on the market that can manage the iPad well enough. For IT departments with investment in those tools, which often also manage Android devices including devices, may make it difficult to justify the effort and potential expense needed to manage BlackBerry 10 devices.

Apple isn't the only foe BlackBerry faces. Samsung has made it very obvious that it intends to hold the trophy for the most secure mobile devices. The company's SAFE program was largely designed to give IT the granular policy management that has always been the signature BlackBerry feature. The KNOX platform that will ship first on the Galaxy S4 and eventually on other devices (which will include at least a successor to the current Galaxy Note II and is virtually certain to include other tablets) raises the bar even further. Both SAFE and KNOX come from an established consumer brand and are included on some of the most popular Android devices on the market today.

The world in which BlackBerry is competing is a far cry from the world that BlackBerry used to dominate. The simple fact is that BlackBerry may have waited too long to get a new product lineup in place.

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