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Is BlackBerry OS 6.0 too little, too late?

To the surprise of almost no one (but to the relief of many), Research In Motion confirmed it will finally unveil its long-awaited BlackBerry OS 6.0 update during the third quarter. Speaking to analysts Monday in conjunction with this year’s Wireless Enterprise Symposium event, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis promised the most significant BlackBerry software overhaul in years–specifics remain scarce, but Lazaridis trumpeted enhancements including an improved WebKit-based browser, a customizable homescreen, a revamped media player and a more intuitive user experience. “We’re trying to update the UI and fix the stuff that people wanted us to fix,” he said, adding that BlackBerry OS 6.0 will extend to both trackpad and touchscreen devices.

BlackBerry OS 6.0 arrives at a critical juncture in RIM’s evolution–although the platform maintains a significant smartphone market share lead in the U.S., there’s little if any excitement around its future. A little over a year since BlackBerry App World launched, the storefront features only about 6,000 applications, more than 100,000 apps behind Apple’s rival App Store. RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie argued Monday that application quantity is not as important as app quality, and said the firm is working with developers to make it easier to create software tailored to the BlackBerry user segment–for what it’s worth, RIM director of developer relations Mike Kirkup said Monday that BlackBerry App World is fast approaching 1 million downloads per day, evidence that the company is giving its users what they want.

Even so, consumer interest in BlackBerry is waning. A recent Crowd Science survey reports that 39 percent of BlackBerry users would prefer an iPhone as their next purchase and 34 percent said they would favor an Android device. Despite RIM’s efforts to position BlackBerry as a mass-market brand as well as an enterprise staple, the makeover hasn’t taken hold: BlackBerry app usage is higher and more concentrated during workdays than iPhone app usage, according to recent data issued by mobile analytics firm Localytics. BlackBerry app behaviors remain dominated by professional users, Localytics reports–BlackBerry app usage is higher throughout the workday and begins to peak at 7 p.m. EST, two hours earlier than the iPhone. Moreover, there is no significant statistical difference between BlackBerry app usage on weekdays and weekends. By comparison, iPhone owners are most active on the weekends–usage at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays is 40 percent higher than at the same time Monday through Friday.

A more contemporary, user-friendly BlackBerry OS might extend the platform’s appeal beyond the enterprise, but Monday’s announcement still appears behind the times–at this stage in the game, a better browser and more elegant UI seem more like basics than breakthroughs. Not to mention that by the time BlackBerry OS 6.0 begins shipping this fall, it will face competition from iPhone OS 4.0 and the latest Android update. Make no mistake: A new and improved BlackBerry OS is welcome news. But there’s little to indicate it’s new enough or improved enough to persuade developers and consumers to reconsider their opinions. –Jason

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