Research In Motion Ltd. is embarking on one of the most ambitious device launches in its history, as the struggling smartphone giant tries to halt a decline in market position and strike back against fast-moving rivals.
The Waterloo-based technology company is taking the unusual step of simultaneously launching three new models around the world in an unprecedented effort to build on the company's success in international markets.
The bid to show global strength comes at a crucial time for RIM, which has ceded market share in North America but posted 67 per cent year-over-year growth in international revenues as it conquered emerging markets in Africa and South Asia.
"We are making a statement," said Patrick Spence, RIM's managing director of global sales and regional marketing, in a phone interview from London. "The ability to execute across this many carriers, across this many markets ... How many [companies]bring three fantastic smart phones to market at the same time, and are able to execute on that? Definitely, it's a statement, in terms of continuing to build on our rich heritage, and an even better BlackBerry experience."
RIM, which will launch the new devices with 225 wireless operators, is relying on this crop of devices to play well across diverse markets such as Indonesia and Latin America. It also hopes the fresh products can maintain the profitable momentum overseas as it revives flagging interest in developed markets, where RIM has been forced to fend off criticism of its management structure and the launch of the PlayBook, among other things.
The company is counting on the new devices to help it weather the rough transition to the more advanced QNX software platform next year. In the meantime, all of the new BlackBerrys – a full touchscreen device; a touchscreen version of its popular Bold smart phone; and a more powerful version of the Torch – run on a sleeker, updated version of the company's operating system.
Even though these new devices improve on the BlackBerry user experience, many think RIM will likely still be playing catch up to Apple Inc.'s iPhone and the more advanced handsets running Google Inc.'s Android operating system. When asked whether RIM had closed the gap with its rivals, Mr. Spence said that RIM had "definitely upped the game" with a better browser, and added that the BlackBerry product's overall value was "as good, if not better" than its rivals.
The new devices are, undoubtedly, improvements on their predecessors: RIM's new Bold, for example, has a better QWERTY keyboard, the entirely new addition of a touch screen, and a much more multimedia-friendly interface with the BlackBerry 7 operating system. There is no official launch date for the devices, RIM executives said, because the launches in different markets will depend on local wireless carriers. Canadian consumers can expect to see domestic carriers offer the devices by mid-August at the latest.
But with rival device makers wooing wireless carriers with so-called "super phones" that meet certain technical criteria, such as a dual-core processor, a four-inch screen and the ability to achieve download speeds of at least 14.4 megabytes per second, many feel RIM is slipping further behind, even as the company drastically improves it core product.
"RIM does not have a super phone – Motorola does, HTC does, Samsung does, I could go on, but RIM does not," said a Canadian wireless carrier executive who has seen the new devices, but did not want to be named because of a business relationship with RIM. "Their browser experience continues to be the weak part of their product, and it is better. But is the gap shrinking? That's a tough one. The point is that it's not the best in the industry."
Mr. Spence and Andrew Bocking, RIM's vice-president of software, said RIM's new devices don't have dual-core processors because these eat into the BlackBerry's famous lengthy battery life. Technical specs, Mr. Bocking added, are less relevant than the overall experience, which he says has been improved upon dramatically.
"It is the best BlackBerry experience to date," Mr. Bocking said, as he demonstrated some of the new devices' functions, which include the ability to scan high-tech business cards with so-called "near-field communication" and adding the information directly to the BlackBerry's contacts list.
The new devices boast an upgraded version of the popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) messaging system, as well as the latest version of RIM's operating system, BlackBerry 7. Mr. Bocking said the new devices will likely play differently in various markets, with some carriers choosing to launch and focus on particular models over others. In markets such as Latin America and South Asia, where BBM chatting is hugely popular, the market may lean toward those models with QWERY keyboards.
The BlackBerry 7 operating system, which is tailored to the new touch screen technology, gives users a much smoother experience than before and browsing the Web, which has long been a sore point for BlackBerry users, is up to 40 per cent faster than before, Mr. Spence added. But whether this is enough to woo Western consumers who have shifted away from RIM – as well as continue to lure those in the global south, as cheaper Android phones flood the market – is still quite uncertain. Mike Walkley, an analyst with Canaccord Genuity, says that the devices will sell well among those who currently use BlackBerrys and are looking for a better experience. He added, however, that they will likely fail to capture consumers' imagination away from sophisticated devices such as the iPhone and newer Samsung models.
"I think BlackBerry 7 (devices) will sell more than people think," he said. "But I don't think it's going to be seismic shift."