RIM Shifts Gear to Web Speed

It’s no secret that RIM’s browser isn’t among its strongest assets. The list of sites that the BlackBerry browser either struggles or fails to render is growing by the day. That said, its poor performance hasn’t harmed BlackBerry sales, with subscribers now totalling at least 32 million. The dominance of BlackBerry Enterprise Server in business, the success of BlackBerry Internet Service and RIM’s foresight in positioning the BlackBerry as a social networking device has driven continued growth in subscribers and shipments (although that masks mounting pressure on profit margins).

However, the lack of a competitive Web browser has underlined the challenge RIM faces in maintaining pace with its competitors as it expands into the consumer mass market. Highly optimised, push-based social networking applications are just the ticket right now. But products that integrate Web services into the heart of the phone, from the likes of HTC, Inq, Motorola and Palm, indicate the next step in mobile services. That’s the challenge for RIM as it diversifies from its enterprise heritage.

Despite RIM’s bullish dismissal of the threat posed by rivals like Apple, I’m sure RIM’s aware of its position. A flurry of developments in recent months is a reassuring sign that RIM is making up for lost time and ensuring that it has enough to maintain innovation and differentiation in its devices, applications and services.

RIM’s acquisition of little-known Torch Mobile is a much-needed move to improve the BlackBerry browser. Torch Mobile’s Iris browser is based on the open-source Webkit engine, like browsers on Symbian S60, Android, iPhone and Palm’s webOS. It should deliver a better browsing experience and a monumental improvement in terms of compatibility, given it supports a comprehensive range of Web standards such as HTML, JavaScript and CSS.

To add to that, RIM announced involvement in the Open Screen Project and its commitment to bring Adobe’s full Flash player runtime to BlackBerry. RIM is not only enhancing its browser but is quite rightly looking to offer a broad range of runtime environments for content and application development.

The Torch Mobile acquisition is without doubt much more than a way to improve the browser. As we’re seeing elsewhere, the browser is no longer just a means to view Web pages but a platform for application and content development. Apple, Google, Nokia, Palm and others are all using the Webkit engine to run lightweight applications (or “widgets”) based on Web standards.

The reason is simple: Web standards are ubiquitous and not specific to mobile, which means developers can create widgets faster and without needing specific mobile skills. We’ve predicted for a long time that Web-based development will quickly overtake that of native applications.

With RIM fighting Android, iPhone, LiMo, Maemo, Symbian, WebOS and Windows Mobile for developers’ attention, simplification of its development environment is crucial. The announcement of a Widget SDK for the BlackBerry platform is a step in the right direction. Third-party innovation will largely determine the winning platforms in the years to come, and RIM’s next challenge will be balancing its sharp focus on security with developers’ demands for low-level API access within the BlackBerry platform.