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RIM’s BlackBerry 10 launch goes off with a successful bang

Thorsten Heins, right, CEO of Research In Motion, introduces singer Alicia Keys at the BlackBerry 10 launch in New York.

Mark Lennihan/AP

Research In Motion Ltd. CEO Thorsten Heins stepped onto a stage in Manhattan on Wednesday and unveiled the company's long-delayed lineup of BlackBerry 10 devices, triggering a broadly positive reception as the company launches a new phase of its comeback attempt.

After suffering losses, product delays, layoffs and growing concern about the company's future, RIM's new smartphone earned positive reviews from influential technology experts, and Mr. Heins confidently predicted customers would embrace the new device.

And in its attempt to reinvent itself from a stuffy corporate phone maker with dwindling sales to a rising consumer juggernaut, RIM said it will change its name to simply BlackBerry, appointed superstar singer Alicia Keys as "Global Creative Director" live on stage and gave out free phones to the Wall Street analysts and executives who came down to the Pier 36 venue to watch the spectacle.

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Despite the well-received launch and positive early product reviews, shares of RIM reversed their recent sharp ascent and dropped 12 per cent Wednesday as investors reconsidered the intense competitiveness of the smartphone industry, and the massive popularity of devices sold by rivals Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., which together accounted for 92 per cent of all smartphone sales in the fourth quarter, according to one research firm.

Mr. Heins, who took over as RIM CEO a year ago with the company in crisis, insisted the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 launch will be worth the wait.

Before the event, Mr. Heins walked into a suite on the thirty-sixth floor of the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel for an interview with The Globe and Mail wearing a dark suit, a grey-and-purple tie, rimless glasses and a very big grin.

He had just flown into New York from the World Economic Forum in Davos, and he had a good reason to be cheerful: Where else but hobnobbing among the global elite would Mr. Heins find such a high concentration of BlackBerry addicts? And as he readied for the next day's big launch, he seemed buoyed by the enthusiasm he heard from Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Deutsche Bank executives, among others.

"Davos had a pretty high penetration of BlackBerrys, which gave me quite some confidence. A lot of loyal customers there."

The blockbuster event in Manhattan was simulcast in cities across the globe – from Toronto and London to Paris and Johannesburg – and captivated the technology world in a way RIM hasn't been able to in years.

Executives at RIM, which is launching its touchscreen BlackBerry Z10 phone in Canada and other markets starting in late January and early February, know this is likely the company's last chance to win back those who have abandoned BlackBerrys in droves.

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"This is one of the biggest launches in our industry," Mr. Heins said.

And for a few hours on Wednesday, he appeared to be right, as positive reviews began flowing online from America's most famous gadget reviews and the technology world focused its collective gaze on RIM – largely in a good way. "He's no Steve Jobs but I thought he did a solid job," says Jefferies & Co. technology analyst Peter Misek, who attended the event.

But RIM shares fell throughout Mr. Heins's time on stage. U.S. media seemed to focus on the fact that the first device won't launch in the U.S. until March, whereas it will launch in the U.K. starting today (JAN 31) and in Canada on Feb. 5 – two countries where the BlackBerry tends to be more popular.

"I expect it's going to do reasonably well in the U.K. and Canada, but the real question is the U.S.," Mr. Misek added.

Kris Thompson, an analyst with National Bank Financial, said the deferred U.S. availability may lead analysts to lower expectations for device shipments. "The QWERTY Q10 will not be available anywhere until April, which is very, very disappointing. Estimates might come down on the launch delays."

RIM's executives said the BlackBerry would lift its current stable of 70,000 apps to 100,000 by the time the devices launched around March. Alec Saunders, RIM's vice-president of developer relations, said in an interview that "I don't see that being a problem. We're off to a great start."

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Now, of course, it is up to the market to determine whether BlackBerry 10 sinks or succeeds – both the consumer market that has increasingly abandoned BlackBerrys and the corporate market that is beginning to supplement BlackBerrys with other devices. RIM will launch additional BlackBerrys over the course of the year at different price points for various international markets and audience segments, but the focus for now is on the Z10 – a high-end smartphone that is 4.2 inches of glass, slightly bigger than the iPhone. But Mr. Heins says that his conversations over the last year with customers in different countries leave RIM convinced that there is a market for what he's selling.

"I've showed it to [chief information officers] of large companies, they were stunned," Mr. Heins said. "I mean, they were just saying, 'When can I have it? I need it. I want to speed up the process,' " he said.

"And the first indications we've got from pre-registrations, specifically in Canada, are pretty exciting," Mr. Heins said. "You get sign-up rates from even non-BlackBerry users today that are really exciting. The indications I have, the data points I have, they point toward a success. But again, it's all about execution. We better get this right."

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