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BlackBerry and Nokia only have a few more rolls of the dice left

The train might’ve already left the station. With iOS and Android powering ahead, notching up record activations every day, analysts have all but written off other platforms.

This is especially evident in developed markets like the US and Europe, where the “experts” continually question and criticise Nokia and RIM’s (BlackBerry’s) every move. Never mind the fact that Android handsets are dime a dozen and the fragmentation of the operating system is causing headaches for everyone: Operators, device makers, customers, Google (that’s a topic for another column).

All things being equal, RIM (BlackBerry) and Nokia still find themselves in particularly precarious positions. Not because they’re still growing market share in many markets and dominant in many more. But because they’re both undergoing fundamental transitions.

BlackBerry (despite its downtime issues across the globe) is stuck between a legacy operating system and platform and the promise of one built from the ground up, based on QNX. This software made its debut on the Playbook.

Nokia, after publically unveiling its alliance with Microsoft, is readying a new range of smartphones based on the Windows Phone 7 platform. This is a big opportunity to create a viable third ecosystem.

For now, though, we wait.

Two events in the coming fortnight will impact and help shape the fortunes of both BlackBerry and Nokia greatly.

BlackBerry hosts its North American DevCon in San Francisco next week. It is expected to announce some improvements to its developer tools and its app store which will help foster its fledgling ecosystem. Perhaps more importantly, it should offer a glimpse of what we can expect from its new operating system, and possibly even make key announcements. There will be a lot of focus at the conference on its PlayBook tablet. Sales have been disappointing, and we can only expect RIM to announce significant upgrades to the device (not the hardware, but some features like on-device e-mail which are obviously missing).

Nokia will debut a new smartphone (or two) running the Windows Phone 7 operating system at Nokia World in two weeks’ time. Rumours suggest we will see an N9 with a few modifications running Windows Phone 7 launched.

For BlackBerry and Nokia to remain relevant, they have to do a number of things right before they lose the window of opportunity to retain their customers presented by the 24-month upgrade cycle.

They need to release compelling devices. Both are capable of this on a hardware level (the new BlackBerry Bold 9900 has the best keyboard I’ve ever used on a phone, and the Nokia N9 is a beautiful phone). Hardware.

They need to tightly integrate with an operating system that is powerful, fast and intuitive. With this comes an ecosystem and apps. The more compelling the apps, the more compelling the device.

Wrap this up with localised services (which Nokia especially is good at) and they’ve both got a strong chance.

Roll the dice.

Author | Hilton Tarrant: Columnist

Hilton Tarrant: Columnist
Hilton Tarrant is production editor at Moneyweb. His main focus is project management for the listed company’s local and international websites, and contributes to their strategic direction. From time-to-time, he also fills in for Alec Hogg on the SAfm Market Update with Moneyweb radio programme. In between, he covers... More