BlackBerry gears up for comeback, will doctors follow?

By: Jonah Comstock | Jan 30, 2013        

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blackberry Z10

Research in Motion (RIM) finally renamed itself “BlackBerry” after its signature product, even as it launched its much-awaited iPhone/Android competitor: the BlackBerry 10 operating system, touchscreen BlackBerry Z10 and keyboard-equipped BlackBerry Q10. The launch has been described as a Hail Mary pass for the struggling company, a last chance for a comeback that the company hopes could put it back in the running against Apple and Google in the smartphone race. The devices are heading to the UK first.

BlackBerry’s offerings were once the devices of choice for doctors, but the company’s popularity has been in decline for the last few years, with Apple’s iPhone and iPad products largely supplanting it. As recently as April 2012, RIM was making a bid to get those physician customers back on board with BlackBerry Bold.

According to Manhattan Research, BlackBerry and Apple were neck and neck among physicians in 2010, with Apple taking 22 percent of physicians, BlackBerry taking 20 percent, and Android taking only 4 percent. In 2011, the percentage of physicians using Apple products doubled, while the BlackBerry numbers went down 2 percent. The next year, only 10 percent of doctors were using BlackBerry devices, even lower than 2009 levels, while apple had skyrocketed to 57 percent — more than half of all the physicians in the country.

So if BlackBerry wants to make a comeback with physicians, it has a long way to go. However, several of the features announced for the new device suggest it could reel some of those doctors — not to mention hospital CIOs — back in.

BlackBerry has always pointed to its physical keyboard as a perk that touchscreen only devices couldn’t touch, and the new release does include a QWERTY keyboard model. But it also contains an improvement to the virtual keyboard, with opt-in rather than opt-out predictive text, which received accolades from the New York Times’ David Pogue. Touchscreen keyboards are a sticking point for clinical data entry, which needs to be fast and accurate, as MobiHealthNews has reported in the past.

BlackBerry takes on BYOD

Another reason physicians might adopt the new BlackBerry is BlackBerry Balance, a feature designed with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) worries in mind. BlackBerry Balance allows users to partition their mobile data storage so that everything related to work — work apps, work email, work communications — is stored in a separate, secure “perimeter.” When an employee leaves a company, the work perimeter can be easily and permanently deleted. The perimeters won’t interrupt the rapid multitasking the OS is designed to facilitate — once a user is signed in to the work side, they can move back and forth between work and personal easily.

Physicians Smartphone AdoptionOne feature that third-party BYOD security companies often tout is the ability to lock out or wipe a phone remotely if its lost or stolen. With BlackBerry Protect, the new BlackBerry devices will have that feature built in from the manufacturer.

Another feature the company is highlighting is called BlackBerry Remember, an organizational aid for taking notes and keeping track of events. The feature will even sync with Evernote, a memory app that has proven popular with doctors. (Evernote also recently partnered with iHealth, reflecting an increasing inclination towards participating in the health space.)

BlackBerry 10 is launching with 70,000 downloadable apps, including a number of health apps. In 2010, we reported that BlackBerry executives said they were interested only in serious health apps — no “goofy” apps or games. However, a browse of the BlackBerry AppWorld’s health and fitness section demonstrates the same range of serious to frivolous health apps we see in the AppStore and the Google Play store now. Certainly some of the big names in consumer health, like ZocDoc and Walgreens, are represented. Companies like Allscripts and Epocrates, too, haven’t given up on BlackBerry, and will likely provide offerings compatible with the new operating system.

Smartphones just the start for BlackBerry 10 OS

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins also told the Globe and Mail that the Blackberry 10 operating system is not just for smartphones. He described a long-term plan to push into machine to machine verticals, pointing specifically to the healthcare field, implying that the OS could find a home in connected medical devices. The Globe and Mail also mentioned RIM’s acquisition of software company QNX, which MobiHealthNews wrote about in our 2011 tablet report:

“In fact, QNX demoed a new software reference design for medical devices earlier this year,” we wrote at the time. “In that demo, the company showed a medical device running QNX Neutrino RTOS and connecting via Bluetooth to blood pressure monitors, weight scales, pulse oximeters and…you guessed it, a BlackBerry PlayBook. All of this was accomplished using the Bluetooth Health Device Profile, which allows medical devices to relay data to PCs and mobile devices. Seeing how QNX Neutrino RTOS has a long history of being deployed in FDA-certified devices, considering that QNX was just acquired by RIM and keeping in mind that RIM has demoed the PlayBook running healthcare-specific software, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where RIM pushes the PlayBook in the healthcare market in a big way.”

If BlackBerry’s Hail Mary is going to succeed, they’ll certainly need to attract consumers on a wide scale. But doctors are an important market for mobile devices and services, too, and they’ve shown that they are willing to switch devices when something new works better. Whether BlackBerry 10 can win back physicians remains to be seen, but it is the best shot the company has taken in some time.