Clad in a black sweater and Converse shoes with peace signs on them, Anders Jeppsson doesn’t look like your average executive from Research In Motion Ltd.
But Mr. Jeppsson fits right in here at the smart phone giant’s annual developer conference in San Francisco, even though his job title – head of gaming – seems a little out of place for RIM, a company known best for its secure e-mail services and stuffy corporate image.
New employees like Mr. Jeppsson are crucial to the Waterloo, Ont.-based smart phone giant as it tries to revamp its image as a fusty tech has-been and battle its way to becoming a true mass market phenomenon against Apple Inc.’s iPhone and the slew of slick devices running Google Inc.’s Android operating system.
His presence onstage at co-chief executive officer Mike Lazaradis’ keynote speech did not go unnoticed earlier this week, nor did the clear emphasis on the ability of the PlayBook tablet to play a number of new, high-powered 3-D games.
“I’m trying to realign the image of RIM,” Mr. Jeppsson, 40, said in an interview. “Everyone’s playing games right now. It’s not just for little kids, pimpled kids. If you don’t do gaming well, then you don’t have a proposition for the mass market.”
The company’s spotlight on gaming during RIM’s presentation – where a new operating system called BBX was unveiled – was “sort of deliberate” in its attempt to shift the narrative, Mr. Jeppsson said. Pointing to the much-anticipated crop of smart phones that will run BBX, he said they are “amazing beasts,” and that the platform will be outstanding for future games.
“When we launched the PlayBook, people said this was a business device. But we cater to different markets with the same device. I can do corporate stuff, like spread sheets, but then my kids are screaming and I can throw it to them – and they can play Angry Birds,” said Mr. Jeppsson, whose official title at RIM is senior manager for strategic business development.
Mr. Jeppsson is only one of several new high-profile employees at RIM’s biggest annual conference this year. He came onboard when RIM bought the Sweden-based The Astonishing Tribe in late 2010. Alec Saunders, RIM’s new vice-president of developer relations, only joined the company in August – and has his since announced plans to unleash developer “evangelists” to spread RIM’s tech gospel. And Ronjon Nag, vice-president of RIM’s App World and intelligent systems, joined late last year when RIM acquired his app store-focused Silicon Valley firm, Cellmania.
The acquisitions, and the high-profile nature of these new executives at the conference, speak to the importance of apps and software developers to the future of RIM, and particularly its failure so far to win commercial traction with the PlayBook – which still doesn’t have the native e-mail application its users have been demanding.
One of RIM’s key challenges is the unprecedented global growth of Android smart phones, which only launched in 2007 but now account for more than 40 per cent of the worldwide smart phone market share. Several developers at DevCon from Latin America, a BlackBerry stronghold, conceded that orders from clients for Android apps were increasing at a fast pace.
At a Japanese-themed cafeteria at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, Android’s vice-president of engineering, Hiroshi Lockheimer, turns the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus over in his hand as he explains Android’s rise. The sleek new phone, released this week in Hong Kong, has a feature where you can unlock the phone with facial recognition, simply by staring into the front-facing camera.
Part of Google’s growth story has been working with carriers to tailor the tech giant’s software to work on popular devices in specific geographic markets. “We can scale down and go low end. And we can scale up, and go super high end, as well. So over time, as the platform has matured, we’re broadening our reach,” Mr. Lockheimer said.
And that’s bad news for RIM’s leadership in various international markets. The last year has been grim: RIM’s share price has tanked by more than 50 per cent, the company has stumbled in numerous PR disasters such as last week’s global service outage. But all of this has only renewed focus at RIM, which is streamlining its work force, has brought out new tools for developers and is championing BBX as a common standard to run across all the company’s devices, which some developers thought was too fragmented by screen size, form factor and processing power.
“There is a lot of new blood in RIM,” said Mr. Nag, who works out of RIM’s Silicon Valley office. “I think a few years ago, RIM was very business focused. But over the past few years, consumers have been buying BlackBerrys. And guess what, business people are consumers, too.”