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Last Call for BlackBerry

“We’ve taken the time to build a platform that’s future-proof for the next 10 years.”

Future-proof… for the next 10 years. Hmm!

This rather paradoxical statement comes from Thorsten Heins, the new CEO of a company that has specialized in missteps and misfortune for the past several years.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when I covered the high-profile bankruptcies of HMV and Blockbuster in the United Kingdom, the bottom line for companies these days is clear: Innovate or die!

Research In Motion (RIMM) apparently didn’t get the memo.

Like Nokia (NOK), once the world’s biggest phone maker, Research In Motion also held a dominant position in the mobile phone market. Particularly in the business world.

But as rivals like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) embarked on a massive wave of innovation and mobile technology moved on at warp speed, RIM missed the boat. In fact, it wasn’t even anywhere near the harbor.

Failure to  adapt to the changing landscape and innovate has left the company stuck with outdated, unreliable software and clunky handsets. It’s become an afterthought and the butt of jokes.

But tomorrow, RIM will attempt to win back some trust – and much-needed business – by launching new software and devices.

Is there any hope for the beleaguered company? Heins thinks so…

From CrackBerry to Raspberry

When BlackBerries first rose to prominence, they were so ubiquitous among businesspeople that they gained the nickname “CrackBerry,” due to their addictive nature.

But the image of suit-clad business warriors bashing away on their BlackBerries quickly morphed to iPhones and Android devices instead.

Its handset design was made to look prehistoric compared to flashy new devices from Apple and Samsung. Then a string of embarrassing service failures (including a widespread outage that lasted several days in Britain) hammered the company’s reputation as the go-to platform for businesses. And app developers ditched BlackBerry in favor of other smartphones.

In a crippling blow, a rash of corporate and government clients (including U.S. immigration and customs agencies, the NTSB and NOAA) let their BlackBerry contracts expire and moved to other carriers.

Customers have followed suit. And negative stories have appeared about BlackBerry owners being publicly mocked for owning the device!

Following massive losses last year, RIM’s co-founders, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, were booted out, with the company’s chief operating officer, Heins, taking over.

At a launch event in London tomorrow, RIM will kick off what it hopes will be a phoenix-from-the-flames-like rebirth.

“Re-designed… Re-engineered… Re-invented”

The company will do so with its new BB10 software – a fully “re-designed, re-engineered, re-invented” (it says on the marketing) interface – and two new BB10 phones.

While RIM is keeping the full details a secret until the launch, it’s done a good job getting the word out and creating what seems to be some pretty positive publicity.

According to The Guardian, the company started sending its BB10 devices to wireless carriers and the media late last year. Partners and developers also received the phones, with the initial verdict far more favorable than the company’s overhyped but ultimately terrible Storm and PlayBook devices. One of the new phones apparently has a touchscreen, while the other has a built-in keyboard.

In addition, RIM has worked hard to get all-important app developers back on board. Its renamed BlackBerry World app store now has thousands of apps in the fold.

The buzz over the new products has seen RIM’s share price more than double from around $7 at the end of September to $15.66 today.

Next stop: The Superbowl. RIM has spent over $3 million on an ad that will air during the game on Sunday.

So what are the chances of success for RIM here?

Last Chance Saloon

It’s worth remembering that RIM has never really positioned the BlackBerry as a consumer-based product. Its focus has primarily been on attracting business clients.

So it stands to reason that RIM must appeal to its core base again if it wants to rebound. Regaining the trust of government and corporate clients is absolutely critical to its chances.

But even if (and it’s a big “if”) the BB10 launch proves successful, it’s going to be virtually impossible to catch Apple and Google. They’re simply too far ahead at the top of the smartphone world order for RIM to catch up.

However, the timing of RIM’s BB10 launch is favorable, as it gives the company a chance to compete with the relatively new Windows Phone 8.

Even after months of restructuring and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cost cuts, RIMM still boasts some 80 million customers on the BlackBerry platform, according to Mashable. That’s a pretty solid base, so there is an opportunity here… but only if the BB10 line proves successful.

The launch goes live tomorrow. And while Heins believes RIM still has a big role to play in the smartphone market, there’s little doubt that the company is drinking in the last chance saloon.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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