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RIM revs up: a new QWERTY phone, new software, and new ambitions

RIM revs up: a new QWERTY phone, new software, and new ambitions


Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins lays out the new plan for his company.

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BlackBerry 10 keyboard first hands-on
BlackBerry 10 keyboard first hands-on

In a meeting Tuesday in New York, Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins along with other executives discussed —and demoed — the future of the company.

It was a candid opportunity to hear Heins' plans for the future, discuss the challenges of the last few years, and see a first hand demo of the next iteration of BlackBerry phones. While the executives certainly have plenty of worries to focus on — like the fact that RIM stock prices have lost nearly 70 percent of their value in the last year — the lanky, impressively tall Heins was upbeat about the company's future. He believes RIM can begin to reclaim some of that lost marketshare in the US during 2013, and he seemed downright giddy about new technologies that users would see in upcoming devices.

The CEO says that carrier aversion to 3G devices is the main culprit for the company's dipping numbers

Heins wasn't shy in discussing the decline in RIM's US marketshare during the rise of the iPhone and Android, and to my surprise, the CEO doesn't share the view that it was simply competition which has slimmed the company's footprint. Heins said that sales of the devices in the US took a major hit as carriers transitioned to 4G phones. According to the executive, carrier aversion to marketing 3G devices is the main culprit for the company's dipping numbers. That doesn't exactly jibe with the popular belief that Apple and Google put the hurt on RIM, but it's an interesting theory that speaks to the well known influence of carrier control. It's also clearly something the company wants to put in its rearview mirror.

At the meeting, I saw two of the new phones the company will offer in the first quarter of 2013 (a date which was delayed from Q4 2012 so that the company could refine the OS). One is a long, full-touchscreen device, the other a new variation of the classic, QWERTY-keyboard BlackBerry phones which executives referred to as the "Nevada."

The larger of the two looks similar to the company's dev device it handed out in May of this year, and ironically, a bit like images of the rumored iPhone 5 that have been floating around the web.

The QWERTY device also has a touchscreen, but is styled in the classic vein of the Bold line. However, the device streamlines many of the contours of the Bold and removes the well known silver metal rim which surrounds the most recent model. It's a handsome phone.

Heins was excited to show off what he referred to as a "nearly finished" version of the operating system on the devices, BlackBerry 10. Another executive at the meeting told me the software on the phones would go into beta testing at RIM headquarters this week, and the work of "polishing" the still-rough product would begin in earnest. Aesthetically, what's been seen of the software previously wasn't too far off from what was demoed in the meeting.

According to the company, extensive research was done in the US to better understand its core users and their habits. Heins described the study of BlackBerry customers as "a very intense time," and numbered the users observed in the thousands. The discoveries made during the testing led the company to aggressively play to its strengths, meaning a focus away from what company executives described as the "in and out" application experience of other smartphone OSs. Whether or not the company has accomplished that remains to be seen.

Heins said there could be as many as six devices in market next year

When it comes to third-party software support, executives said that the current crop of BlackBerry PlayBook tablet applications (about 30,000 titles) will run on the new phones, but the company expects a rapid uptick in new submissions aimed at the mobile devices. The company didn't go into detail on how the PlayBook software would translate, but it's hard to envision some of those titles working on smaller screens without the need for developer intervention.

Heins said that both new devices were slated for launch on "major carriers" in the US. The touchscreen model would be followed to market by its QWERTY-brethren, with a 4 to 6 week gulf between releases. According to the executive, carrier partners who have seen the devices are excited for their arrival, though he wouldn't share specifics on exactly where and when we'd see the phones. The Wall Street Journal reports that Heins said there could be as many as six devices in market next year, and he hinted in our meeting that at least one other high-end phone would arrive in the middle of 2013.

But there's still a long road ahead to 2013, and a lot of work to be done on these devices before they're ready for their time in the spotlight. The company remains positive about its chances in the market and the possibility of the BlackBerry platform as an alternative for buyers. With an eye to holding on to its core, and growing its marketshare with new users, RIM certainly has an uphill battle to face — a battle it will need to face with its eyes wide open.