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Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO of Research In Motion, poses with the Blackberry Bold 9700 (INA FASSBENDER)
Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO of Research In Motion, poses with the Blackberry Bold 9700 (INA FASSBENDER)

RIM sets sights on 100 million users Add to ...

RIM is setting a modest goal as the BlackBerry maker advances its push into the burgeoning consumer smart phone market: 100 million customers.

The Waterloo, Ont., wireless e-mail giant wants to more than double its current 41-million-user base as it leverages its advantages from the corporate world in the mass market for communication gadgets.

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"Forty-one million customers is what I call a good start," RIM president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis told a packed house during a keynote speech at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium, RIM's most important annual conference.

Mr. Lazaridis said 100 million customers is the company's next major target, but he did not give a specific timeline for the ambitious plan.

Getting the extra 60 million customers represents a tricky balancing act for RIM, which has built its reputation on secure systems for big-name corporate clients. In the process, RIM has become a less-appealing destination for the kind of small-shop app developers who build games and other such software for devices such as the iPhone.

"Some people view [app development for the BlackBerry]as not glitzy," said Rick Segal of Toronto-based developer Fixmo. "But where else are you going to find the CIO of the World Bank saying 'these are the tools I need?' "

"I'd take that any day over flashlight apps for the iPhone."

But the kind of consumer audience Apple managed to lure with such apps is exactly the demographic RIM is after. That means RIM must invest in areas such as entertainment, without watering down the BlackBerry's credibility as a business device.

Although RIM currently boasts five of the 10 best-selling smart phones in North America, it faces major hurdles in moving from its traditional corporate and government base to everyday consumers. Perhaps RIM's biggest disadvantage is the relatively minor applications ecosystem for BlackBerrys compared to Apple's iPhone and phones powered by Google's Android operating system.

Mr. Lazaridis sought to play down this discrepancy by arguing that it's the quality, rather than quantity of applications that matters, adding that the company believes "success will depend on who has the best apps, not most apps."

RIM is basing much of its consumer strategy on BlackBerry 6, the newest iteration of its mobile operating system software. Due out next quarter, the new software is perhaps the most consumer-oriented in RIM's history, with an emphasis on design and added features such as a universal search bar. The operating system doesn't appear to be a huge departure from previous versions - at least in terms of basic code - but is significantly more aesthetically pleasing, with an emphasis on graphics and animation.

In his speech, Mr. Lazaridis focused on what he described as "super apps," which he said are applications that simultaneously take advantage of various BlackBerry functions, such as the calendar or e-mail.

The speech did not include any new announcements from RIM, but instead expanded on a series of launches made yesterday, including a new version of the BlackBerry Pearl and the company's smart phone operating system.

The keynote was punctuated by an appearance from pop star Will.i.am, whose band, the Black Eyed Peas, has a sponsorship agreement with RIM.

But Tuesday's keynote still focused heavily on RIM's core audience - enterprise customers. Executives from major RIM partners such as HP gave presentations; an Oracle executive showed off BlackBerry software designed for the health care industry.

On the conference showroom floor, the vast majority of display booths were for companies selling enterprise software and hardware - a clear indicator of where RIM still stands on the business-consumer divide.

"[RIM]definitely has to be out there targeting consumers," Mr. Segal said.

"But the place where corporate American, corporate Canada, the corporate world does business is the BlackBerry."

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