Pop mega-star will.i.am stood before a crowd of about 3,000 in Orlando this week in his oversized sunglasses and white sport coat, looking oddly out of place.
This was no audience of concert-going teenagers. These were attendees at Research In Motion Ltd.'s biggest annual conference for its most important corporate clients. The guest list included the top brass from the World Bank, lawyers from one of the largest mergers and acquisitions law firms in the United States, and major customers from Egypt to Brazil. And after the Black Eyed Peas front man finished stumbling his way through a strange three-minute, stream-of-consciousness talk on the BlackBerry and the future of music - "Trumpets connect people, so does this phone, on a totally different level," he said at one point - who should follow him? Buttoned-up executives in suits from Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, who delivered speeches about health-care technology and cloud computing for businesses.
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Such is the split personality of the new RIM, Canada's most important technology company and by some measures one of the fastest-growing major companies in the world. From its base in Waterloo, Ont., co-chief executive officers Michael Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie built what is now a $15-billion business by offering businesses and government departments what was essentially a super-powered pager with a phone attached. Corporations adopted the BlackBerry because it made them more productive, and ushered the era of the 24-hour employee.
But in 2006, after creating perhaps the most important business tool since the personal computer, RIM began targeting the then-burgeoning consumer smart-phone market with the release of the BlackBerry Pearl. A year later, Apple Inc. introduced its now-ubiquitous iPhone, and the market for such high-end mobile devices has since exploded.
Though BlackBerrys make up five of the top 10 best-selling smart phones in North America, Apple's products garner most of the popular attention, and the launch of the iPad tablet computer has given the California company a huge shot of momentum. That has led many tech analysts to wonder how RIM plans to ensure the iPhone doesn't ultimately win the war for consumers' wallets, particularly as wireless consumers begin to lean toward phones that can offer many small software applications, or apps: There are more than 25 times as many apps for the iPhone as there are for RIM's BlackBerry.
This week in Orlando, RIM's executives gave perhaps the clearest explanation yet of what the company intends to do: everything Apple's not doing. It is no longer about playing catch up in the apps race. It is about playing a different game altogether.
While Apple's focus is squarely on the consumer, RIM is building its consumer strategy around the same things that made the BlackBerry a corporate addiction: security, low power consumption and efficiency. While Apple controls the means of downloading applications for its phone, RIM allows downloads through myriad channels, such as third-party websites, giving developers more freedom. While Apple regularly boasts about the number of iPhone applications available - somewhere north of 185,000 - RIM, which boasts just 6,500 apps, is now pushing quality over quantity, focusing on professionally designed applications that make full use of the BlackBerry's many functions, something Mr. Lazaridis defined this week as a "super-app."
In essence, if Apple wants to be the Holiday Inn of the wireless application world, RIM's new focus is trying to become the Four Seasons. The challenge that will ultimately determine the company's future is whether it can woo enough consumers without sacrificing the corporate clients on which it built its reputation and its business model - whether it can strike a fine balance between the boardroom and the Black Eyed Peas.
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