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Let me tell you what I think of when I hear the word "fun." Water slides, birthday parties, sky diving, and -- don't judge me -- digging through a freshly released 10-K. The last thing to come to mind is exactly Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) .
When I think Research In Motion, I think of crippling service outages, corporate governance travesties, disgruntled shareholders and employees, and misguided attempts to become a musically gifted social butterfly.
In a recent interview with Pocket-lint, RIM's VP of industrial design, Todd Wood, talked about his design philosophy for BlackBerrys, including where the product lineup has been and, more importantly, where it's going. Wood described the company's 2012 product pipeline as "charming, whimsical, and fun."
Depth or breadth?
Wood has been RIM's design head for five years after coming from Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) . He talked of how he likes "restaurants with small menus because it shows they are good at those things." His analogy speaks to companies that utilize product depth strategically as opposed to product breadth.
RIM isn't the paragon of product depth; that distinction goes to Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , who releases a single iPhone model each year and generally has laser focus on honing its relatively numbered product lineup to perfection. On the other hand, Research In Motion doesn't offer an overly broad arsenal of phones, like prolific Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android vendors Samsung and HTC, at the risk of spreading itself too thin.
Where in the world is good design?
Wood flies his team to remote locations throughout the world to hold design workshops. The team drew inspiration for its most recent BlackBerry OS 7 phones from Bellagio in Italy (not the MGM Resorts casino in Sin City). The latest global outing was set in Malmo, Sweden, which prompted the three-word description above.
The BlackBerry maker isn't the type of company that creates buzz within the world of design. That's another title held by Apple and its own industrial design head honcho, Jonathan Ive. Ive's own design focus literally includes heavy use of lasers at times. Steve Jobs, Ive, and Wood have all drawn much inspiration from Dieter Rams, whose work at Braun set new standards of simplistic design decades ago.
What's this thing made out of?
Materials are a critical part of the design process. Wood's current material favorite is stainless steel, although he also expressed an interest in titanium and a love for carbon fiber. He hopes to distinguish BlackBerrys beyond the dull characterization of black slabs.
When asked why phones tend to be predominantly black instead of white, he mentioned that blue jeans tend to discolor white phones and cause "manufacturers like us real headaches." Apple is definitely not a manufacturer like RIM, crafting white iPhones out of stainless steel and glass, albeit being fashionably late.
BlackBerrys of the future
Research In Motion hasn't seen praise for its hardware in recent history. The original BlackBerry Torch last year had embarrassingly inadequate hardware. The recent BlackBerry Bold is an incremental improvement to hardware design -- an upgrade to the "average" category -- yet it's far from a showstopper, especially when pitted against iPhones, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows Phones, or Android devices.
Looking forward, Research In Motion is embracing its QNX acquisition and proceeding with its unified BBX operating system, despite a pesky trademark infringement suit. Some of the future BlackBerrys actually look bold. The company has teamed up with Porsche to design a future model that's a pretty dramatic departure from previous looks.
On top of that design, The Verge has also exclusively gotten hold of a leaked photo of what may be the first BlackBerry running BBX. Codenamed the BlackBerry "London," it's allegedly scheduled for a June 2012 release but that may be as late as Q3. It's supposed to sport a dual-core ARM-based (Nasdaq: ARMH ) OMAP processor from Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) .
Source: The Verge.
I never thought I'd say it, but those BlackBerrys actually look pretty smooth from a hardware perspective, and maybe even a little... fun.
The whole picture
Hardware is just part of the picture and, while important, arguably less important than software like the overall OS and the critical app ecosystem. BBX will have some high hurdles to clear, as Android is already on 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and iOS is up to 5; the OS bar will be even higher by the time BBX hits. It also doesn't help that recent reports show that RIM is losing developer interest in favor of Microsoft.
Even if Research In Motion can get up to speed in the hardware game, it still won't be enough to keep this sinking ship afloat.
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