Research In Motion Ltd. announced a new, unified operating system for its BlackBerry smart phones and tablet computers - called BBX - at its annual developer conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, where many are looking for the troubled but profitable company to show signs of a turnaround.
"Today I'm pleased to announce our next generation platform, BBX," said RIM president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis at San Francisco's Moscone Center, after regaling the crowd with statistics of the brand's global success.
This annual developer conference, known as DevCon, is the company's biggest and most important event, and this year it is being seen as a crucial juncture for RIM, which has seen its share price plummet over the past year. Since the same event last year, when RIM announced its foray into the tablet market with its PlayBook device, RIM has lost huge swathes of market share to Apple Inc.'s iPhone and devices running Google Inc.'s Android mobile operating system.
The company also unveiled new developer tools to help the mobile software programmers create new apps for the BBX platform.
Industry observers had been hoping to see a glimpse of RIM devices running the new operating system the company acquired when it bought Ottawa-based QNX, and QNX's chief executive Dan Dodge joined Mr. Lazaridis on stage.
The company has missed previously stated financial targets and angered investors with its strategy, prompting many to call for a change to the dual-CEO role shared between Mr. Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. The PlayBook, which was meant to be the heavyweight tablet competitor to Apple's enormously popular iPad, has instead met with critical reviews and widespread consumer indifference.
After the announcement of the new operating system, Mr. Lazaridis and his numerous guests on stage immediately began to focus on the technical details of the new operating system and its ability to handle game applications on the PlayBook - demonstrating the core focus of the company as it tries desperately to regain the trust of the developers who create the company's third-party applications, or apps. Both Apple's app store and Android's app store still have far more applications than the BlackBerry App World, although Mr. Lazaridis pointed out that RIM's devices have far more enterprise apps geared toward its corporate users.
Mr. Dodge spoke onstage about how BBX would provide a "unified" platform for developers across the company's devices, highlighting the difficulty many developers have had with designing features for BlackBerry's numerous devices, which all have different processing power, screen sizes and keyboard or touchscreen functionality.
"I cannot underscore just how important you (developers) are to us," Mr. Lazaridis told the crowd. "And we look forward to working with you."
The company also announced an App World designed specifically for enterprise customers, which would allow chief information officers to control and protect the flow of applications to corporate BlackBerry devices. At the same time, Alan Panezic, RIM's vice-president of enterprise product management and marketing, said that these new protection measures wouldn't inconvenience any corporate users or developers.
"The CIO didn’t have to do anything fancy," Mr. Panezic said, as he spoke about the new features. "And the developer didn’t have to do anything fancy."
Roughly three hours into Tuesday morning’s event, in the second session, a RIM executive unveiled new tools that would allow developers to bring over Android apps to the BBX platform – a long-awaited move, delivered unusually late in the presentation, that was previously announced and originally designed to alleviate the lack of available apps in BlackBerry’s app store.
Mr. Lazaridis's keynote speech was clearly designed to reassure developers and rope them along as the company tries to orchestrate its turnaround by focusing on the PlayBook, a device some analysts had left for dead. As the presentation continued on Tuesday morning, the RIM co-CEO said BlackBerry developers make more money than other developers, given the global reach of the brand in emerging markets.
"We’re absolutely committed to the PlayBook, there’s no doubt,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “Now, let’s talk more about how you, the developer, can make money. BlackBerry is a very profitable platform to develop for.”
RIM's keynote presentation about BBX at the conference wrapped up with no specific timelines for new devices or launches. "RIM will launch its BBX smartphones when they are ready and we'll follow up with you with more news on that front at a later point," a company spokesperson said.
Instead, a thorough focus throughout on developers and how they could make money by focusing on BlackBerry going forward.
Many industry analysts followed along with the presentation, looking for announcements that could impact the financial future of the company. Kris Thompson, who follows RIM for National Bank Financial in Toronto, was unimpressed about 50 minutes into the presentation by the clear focus on the operating system on the PlayBook, rather than on the company's popular smartphones, and the lack of a crisp timeline for financial analysts.
"Two thumbs (in BlackBerry speak) down so far," Mr. Thompson wrote in an e-mail to The Globe. "Investors want to see BBX on smartphones. So far the demos have been on the PlayBook. So far no updated timeline provided for BBX on smartphones."
Alec Saunders, RIM's relatively new vice-president for developer relations, took the stage shortly after Mr. Lazaridis to announce a new developer community initiative called BlackBerry Jam, which is designed to make interactions and collaboration between developers more efficient and convenient.
"Wherever you are, come jam with us," Mr. Saunders said.
He added that the BlackBerry App World is more profitable than Android's app store, and has 5-million app downloads per day.
As the stage cleared, and there were no new devices, at least one member of the technology press was grumbling about the lack of details and specifics from the presenters on stage.
"I want to punch someone," one said. "We're going to call it BBX, and show you a couple of screens, but not actually show you anything."