The sick man of technology isn't going down without a fight - or even going down at all, judging by the sunny optimism of Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins.
Kicking off RIM's BlackBerry Jam developers conference in California on Tuesday, Heins gave the world a peek at the company's delayed, next-generation BlackBerry 10 operating system due out in the first quarter of 2013. Though RIM at one time planned to release the smartphone platform this year, the company only recently released the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha to its developer ecosystem. A few weeks ago, the company gave some Canadian carriers a first look at an early version of the mobile operating system that RIM desperately needs to succeed to remain viable.
Heins also offered a few words about the state of his beleaguered company, which has worried investors with poor quarterly performances of late and is in the midst of a restructuring that saw him replace long-time co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie in January.
"We recognise the need for change. There is a new culture at RIM. There's a fighting spirit," Heins told the crowd of BlackBerry developers, promising that RIM remains "focused on the things that we do best, and that will never change, ever."
"We are fighting. Join us and thank you all," he said before leaving the stage.
Prior to the pep talk, Heins focused on all of the goodies in BB10, which at first glance looks like a fine mobile operating system, if not exactly a slam-dunk to overwhelm Apple's iOS or Google's Android.
BlackBerry 10 will initially be released on new touch-screen handsets sometime next year, with a version for phones with a physical keyboard coming later. In addition to native app development, the OS supports Adobe AIR, Android Runtime, and HTML5.
Heins told reporters later in the day that he believed BB10 had a good chance of rapidly becoming the third-biggest smartphone platform when it's released in "a few months."
RIM has streamlined its user interface with what it calls "flow," basically a simplification and integration of core functionality to make navigation on future BlackBerry phones more intuitive and less time-consuming (check out RIM touting the "flow" of BB10 in the video below).
One example is the new BlackBerry Hub, which more fully integrates native productivity apps in BB10 like Calendar and BlackBerry Messenger and makes switching between them never more than a click away. Heins also touted BBM's new multi-lingual text prediction, which allows users to switch between several languages in a message without having to toggle between language settings.
Oh, and RIM has built an emoticon button into its BBM keyboard utility, so there's that.
One of the reasons that RIM has had such a rough go of it lately is that popular consumer phones like the iPhone have been pushing their way into the enterprise IT environments where the BlackBerry maker once ruled unconditionally. Heins told investors earlier this year that RIM is focusing its energy on recapturing that market and BB10 has at least one new feature that appears designed to do exactly that.
BlackBerry Balance may in fact be the most innovative thing we've seen from RIM in quite a while. It's basically a partition that allows a BlackBerry user to maintain two separate, encrypted identities on one device that are firewalled off from each other, one for work and one for personal affairs.
Switching between the two identities appeared pretty easy based on the demo. BlackBerry Balance is a neat and simple little trick that Heins said was "great news for CIOs," which could well be the case if the security safeguards work like RIM said they do.
Other new stuff in BlackBerry 10 seemed more focused on attracting actual end users rather than IT administrators, however. There's a big emphasis on social networking and RIM said Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Foursquare would all be on board with BB10 apps ready to go at launch. After Heins's talk, some other RIM execs showed Facebook working on the next-gen OS. It looked, well, like Facebook running on an iPhone or Android phone, which is a good thing but not exactly a game-changer.
A desire to keep up with the Apples and Googles permeated a lot of the talk about BB10 at the developer conference. Take the BlackBerry App World. RIM is adding downloadable music, movies, games, and other media content to the apps in its online marketplace in an effort turn App World into more of a destination than just an infrequently visited resource.
There are now 105,000 apps in BlackBerry App World, RIM noted. In fact, the company's subscriber base of more than 80 million users is growing at a nice clip as well, in contrast to its financials. But the issue for RIM, in addition to the question of whether it can manage to keep it together long enough to actually release BB10, is whether its growth can be accomplished at a pace that's keeping up with better positioned competitors rather than losing ground.
The jury's still out on that one and the longer it stays out, the more troubling it looks for the onetime king of smartphones.