Why the BlackTab / SurfBook is key to RIM's future
Research in Motion once dominated the smartphone market, but their market share is being continually eaten away by Apple’s iPhone and the many successful Android handsets. Their own forays into the touch screen market—even with the revamped Blackberry 6 operating system—continue to be met with critical indifference. Yet many point out that with so many entries recently released or about to be released in the tablet sector, along with iPad’s already-established dominance, any tablet device faces a struggle to reach market acceptance.
Here’s what we can safely report for now: like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, the Blackberry Tablet device will sport a 7-inch touch screen. It will be manufactured in Taiwan by Quanta and powered by processors from Marvell Technology Group. Marvell is one of the many companies that license the ARM processor architecture which powers nearly all mobile devices below the netbook form-factor, and already has a wide range of chips that could potentially fit in a 7-inch tablet. Most interestingly, some of their existing offerings would already compete fairly well with Apple’s custom ARM system-on-a-chip architecture used in the iPad, especially when compensating for the lower processing load of a 7-inch screen.
Of course, we can speculate all we want about what is under the hood—but most consumers won’t find that terribly helpful in deciding what, if any, interest they have in the device. Here are two key features that may help the Blackberry tablet stand out from the crowd:
Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, the Blackberry tablet isn’t tied to a cellular carrier. Samsung emphasizes that the Galaxy Tab is essentially an oversized phone with 3G capabilities—though U.S. versions get telephony capabilities stripped out—and is sold primarily through cell companies like Verizon. By contrast, the Blackberry Tablet is Wi-Fi only, though 3G capable by ‘tethering’ it to a Blackberry phone, which means users interested in the device will not have to purchase it on contract.
The Blackberry Tablet will use a custom OS based on the QNX architecture, making it stand out from the iPad and all of the Android-based competitors. QNX is a previously open-source operating system (RIM made it closed-source after purchasing QNX Software Systems) that has been around in different versions since the early 1980’s. Key features of the operating system is that, rather than having one large kernel driving the entire processing core, each program running uses its own kernel. In other words, unlike previous Blackberry OS’s, it will be incredibly stable and is reportedly quite easy for developers to program for. The main question becomes: will developers program for a third mobile OS with iOS and Android dominating the market?
Regardless of whether the tablet itself succeeds, many reports indicate that RIM’s version of QNX will be the future of all its devices. This makes the launch of the new architecture interesting to watch, even if you have no interest in another iPad competitor.
Pricing and naming are unknown. Several reports indicate that “BlackPad” is being used in-house at RIM. Other rumors indicate that the device may be called “SurfBook”—and this has already been trademarked by RIM, at least in Canada. My own vote (seconded by several different comment threads) is “Black Magic”, because that’s what RIM will likely have to use if their new tablet is to have any chance of success.