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Visitors head toward the entrance of the Universal Studios Florida theme park in Orlando, Fla., April 22, 2006. (PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP)
Visitors head toward the entrance of the Universal Studios Florida theme park in Orlando, Fla., April 22, 2006. (PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP)

Omar El Akkad

BlackBerry World: Tablets, Smartphones and Theme Parks Add to ...

It's strange having an amusement park all to yourself.

A relatively small crowd of just 4,000 or so people had the run of a good chunk of Universal Studios in Orlando on Tuesday night. They showed up in chartered buses and, once they walked past the hired greeters on the red carpet, they found that Research In Motion had rented out half the park. The lines for most rides were negligible, the food was never-ending, the drinks were free. On a giant stage at the foot of a doodle-shaped roller coaster, world-famous DJ Paul Oakenfold spun records amidst a blinding shower of coloured lights. As the evening progressed, the free-flowing alcohol fuelled an unfortunate bravado that resulted in the occasional spewing of vomit by the roller coaster exit.

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My lowball guess as to how much this outing cost RIM is about $600,000. An analyst friend puts the number at a million.

As with the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (or countless other industry showcases) it's sometimes difficult to remember that RIM's annual BlackBerry World conference is a massive gathering of current and potential customers. Most of them paid in the low four figures to be here; they will pay many times that amount if they decide to purchase more RIM products for their organizations. The attendees include company and government reps from as far away as Egypt and Brazil, and like most of its competitors, RIM goes to great lengths to treat these people well. In this year's case, it rented them a theme park. It also gave out about 5,000 PlayBook tablets to the attendees and quite likely bought up every available ounce of wireless connectivity in Orlando to support the ensuing download orgy.

Thanks in large part to RIM's overseas growth, its annual conference, now in its 10th year, is getting bigger and more elaborate. Last year, there were about 60 journalists here. This year, that number is closer to 170. Compared with last year, there seems to be more flare, too. At co-CEO Mike Lazaridis' keynote speech, Microsoft head Steve Ballmer made a surprise appearance. Malcolm Gladwell, the man behind some of the best-selling non-fiction books of the last decade (and an old college buddy of RIM's other CEO, Jim Balsillie), also gave a talk. Even as a lot of RIM's conference still revolves around business clients, its ecosystem is starting to look a lot more consumer-ish.

Given that most of the people here (customers, developers, BlackBerry addicts) have tied their fortunes at least in part to RIM's success, the sentiment on the showroom floor is universally optimistic. But that doesn't change the fact that RIM kicked off its conference just three days after it put out a profit warning that caused its share price to plummet 14 per cent. Indeed, several analysts here took a decidedly less upbeat tone about the company than they would have just a week ago.

Even if RIM didn't change many of those analysts' minds with its announcements during the conference, it at least managed to take the focus away from last week's profit warning. Over the past few days, RIM unveiled a new version of its Bold smart phone running on an improved BlackBerry operating system, new software for the PlayBook and a joint announcement with Microsoft that will put Bing on BlackBerrys. None of the announcements on their own are earth-shaking, but RIM hopes they can help carry the company through the next few quarters until it launches the first BlackBerrys that run on the same operating system as the PlayBook (between now and then, expect at least one or two more handset announcements as well).

By Wednesday, the conference had shifted from high-profile announcement mode to a steady stream of breakout sessions covering BlackBerry technical minutia (the myriad attendees still hung over from the previous night's Universal Studios festivities also helped keep the vibe a little more low-key). It is somewhat unfortunate (although totally understandable) that RIM chose to make its big announcements at the beginning of the conference. Well after the BlackBerry World dates had been set, a federal election was called in Canada, and election day coincided with the conference's opening. But in addition, the night before the show kicked off, the U.S. announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden. As a result, RIM ended up making most of its announcements on what may well end up being the busiest news day of 2011. There are many outcomes a company can be expected to plan ahead for, but the shooting of the world's most wanted man probably isn't one of them.

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