The fight of Thorsten Heins's career rests on the success or failure of a single piece of software.
Research In Motion Ltd. new chief executive officer faces a series of daunting tasks over the next 12 months, from devising a new marketing strategy to fending off competition from cheap handsets running on Google's Android operating system. But his most important challenge – the one that may determine RIM's future as a consumer smartphone maker – is to deliver the next generation of BlackBerrys and the new operating system they will run on, named BlackBerry 10.
BlackBerry 10 is the software that is expected to run all new devices from RIM, starting in late 2012. It replaces the traditional software currently running all BlackBerrys, and is an extension of the software RIM first showcased on its PlayBook tablet.
And yet, despite its pivotal importance to RIM's future, little is known about what BB10 will look like, or what it will do. Mr. Heins talked up the product in his first conference call with analysts on Monday – "BlackBerry 10 is not just a new OS [operating system]" he said – but stayed vague on the details.
RIM has avoided saying much about the software because it is still in what former CEO Jim Balsillie has described as a "transition period." The company is still launching new BlackBerrys running on its traditional operating system, and doesn't want consumers to opt out of buying those devices in favour of waiting for the new ones because it would hurt short-term sales.
"The transition for this company is still just starting," said Colin Gillis, senior technology analyst at BGC Financial. He stressed that it's important for RIM to entice software developers to build applications for BlackBerry 10. One of RIM's biggest competitive disadvantages is that it has relatively few apps for its phones or its tablet compared to Apple or Android devices.
"It's not just enough to have the operating system – you need to have the entire ecosystem," Mr. Gillis said.
As such, RIM has been busy hiring employees whose job is to help build that ecosystem by convincing developers to create apps. But that task is complicated by the fact that the company has repeatedly delayed the launch of BlackBerry 10 devices.
Adding to the complexity of Mr. Heins's job is that the company's chief competitors are hardly sitting still.
Had BlackBerry 10 phones hit stores early this year, as RIM had originally planned, the competition at the high end of the market would have included the iPhone 4S and several Android-powered devices, such as Motorola's Droid Razr and the Galaxy Nexus from Google and Samsung.
But by the end of 2012, it's almost certain the new BlackBerrys will be competing against an iPhone 5. In addition, the Android operating system and Microsoft's Windows Phone platform will both likely undergo several upgrades.
With every BlackBerry 10 delay, RIM faces the daunting prospect of competing in a marketplace that is less and less predictable.
Analysts and investors have suggested myriad remedies for RIM's ongoing troubles everything from downsizing the number of BlackBerry models it makes to splitting up the whole business. But unless the company resorts to one of the more drastic options or accepts a takeover offer, it is left with one option: It must produce a smartphone that exceeds the capabilities of competing devices that haven't even been released yet.
BB10: THE ENIGMA
Later this year, assuming no more delays, RIM will release the most important piece of software in its history. BlackBerry 10, the operating system on which all future RIM devices are expected to run, will hit stores and, the company hopes, mark a resurgence for the BlackBerry brand. BB10 is based on the same software that powers the PlayBook tablet. The first BB10 smartphones were to reach stores in the first quarter of this year, but that was pushed back to the end of 2012. The company's new CEO Thorsten Heins says the software will be RIM's platform for the next decade, but little is known about it.
What is known about BB10
It's based on operating software that runs the PlayBook, and will likely allow users to perform multitasking on their phones.
BB10 smartphones will have multiple-core processors, making them much faster than traditional RIM smartphones.
RIM will eventually transition all its devices to BB10 and its subsequent iterations.
The company might eventually license the software to other manufacturers, much as Google has done with its Android operating system.
What's not known about BB10
An exact launch date.
Specific features of the new operating system, beyond improved speed and multitasking.
How many different devices RIM will initially launch with BB10.
How much BB10's user interface will differ from the current interface on the PlayBook.
Omar El Akkad