The best-case scenario for BlackBerry right now? Build a niche as a ‘cult’ product

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Can BlackBerry be ‘cool’ again? Sure, but it needs to give its fans something to work with first
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Can BlackBerry be ‘cool’ again? Sure, but it needs to give its fans something to work with first

OK, so I admit that I’ve been picking on RIM (RIMM) a lot lately. And in my defense, the company over the past few years has made it pretty easy for me since it’s made a litany of crucial mistakes that have left it in its current dire situation. But the more I’ve thought about RIM recently, the more I’ve come to believe that its BlackBerry OS may have a real chance to escape the same fate as Symbian, webOS or any number of failed mobile operating systems. And the reason for this is simple: RIM’s remaining customers are fiercely loyal to their products and will passionately evangelize on their behalf.

How do I know this? Well, I read my inbox and my Twitter feed every day. BlackBerry fanatics hound me all the time for either not writing about RIM enough or only writing negative things about RIM. While every operating system has its fanboys and girls, RIM fans show the sort of dogged dedication to defending their favorite company that’s normally reserved for Apple (AAPL) and Android fans.

And boy, have RIM fans had to put up with a lot of nonsense in recent years, from half-baked products like the original BlackBerry Storm and Playbook releases, to multiple product release delays, to phones that are released with vastly inferior hardware compared with other devices on the market. And yet through it all, they’ve stood by their company, even when their company hasn’t released a new smartphone in ages. To use a sports analogy, RIM fans remind me a lot of Oakland Raiders fans at the very depths of the JaMarcus Russell era: They’re people who haven’t lost their love for their team despite suffering through one defeat loss after another.

So: What does this have to do with RIM’s future business prospects? Well it means that they have a very solid base of customers to start from, customers who have stuck with them even through the absolute worst of times. And as long as they make those customers happy with BlackBerry 10 — and as long as those customers like BlackBerry 10 enough to preach its virtues to their friends and coworkers — then RIM has a chance of hanging on and slowly rebuilding itself.

Of course, it’s one thing to have a chance of success, it’s another thing entirely to take advantage of it and RIM will need a lot of luck to pull it off. Still there are some encouraging signs. In the first place, the delays of BlackBerry 10, while frustrating for users, could be a sign that the company is taking its time to get things right before putting out a product. Second, in contrast to the reality denial that was common in the waning days of the Balsillie/Lazaridis era, new CEO Thorsten Heins knows that if BlackBerry 10 flops, RIM has no hope of ever recovering. And finally, it looks as though the new BlackBerry devices will be made with strong hardware that will at least help them keep up with the bevy of high-end Android devices that get released every month.

Do I think RIM will pull this off? I’m betting no, mostly because the hole they’ve dug themselves is so deep that it will be very difficult to recapture the public imagination like they’ve done in the past. But if they take care of their insanely loyal user base first and then concentrate on pushing steadily outward, they might have a shot.

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