After a year of stumbles, Jim Balsillie is predicting a turnaround for Research In Motion Ltd.
The BlackBerry maker's co-chief executive officer, under siege from investors and customers after of a series of public missteps, says the company will finally deliver an answer to its legions of critics Tuesday as it opens up a crucial conference for software developers in San Francisco.
RIM, which unveiled the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer with much fanfare at this same conference a year ago, has endured the most difficult 12 months in its history. The PlayBook has not sold well – RIM shipped just 200,000 of the devices in its most recent quarter – and its BlackBerry smart phones have been bleeding market share to devices run on software made by Google Inc. and Apple Inc. The result has been a series of profit warnings and a stock price that has fallen by 53 per cent in the past year.
Mr. Balsillie's challenge this week is to arrest that spiral of lost confidence and persuade developers that it is worth the effort to create many more software applications, or apps, for BlackBerrys – which makes those products more attractive to consumers. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Balsillie said he was "certain" of success and predicted that observers will be blown away by the slew of announcements RIM plans to make in San Francisco.
"It is really, really powerful how we've intercepted the future," he said.
RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis is expected to take to the stage Tuesday with announcements related to the company's line of smart phones and its PlayBook. The expectations are high: Analysts and investors believe RIM will launch new software that runs e-mail and other vital applications on the PlayBook to make it more alluring. Mr. Lazaridis is also expected to disclose new details about the upcoming line of RIM smart phones due out early next year, which run on a new operating system, called QNX.
Those phones, on which RIM is essentially betting its future, were expected to hit stores in the first quarter of 2012. Asked whether that timeline is still accurate, Mr. Balsillie declined to say.
The company is still smarting from a three-day disruption to service last week that affected tens of millions of BlackBerry users worldwide. On Monday, RIM said it would give customers a selection of premium smart phone applications and month of free technical support as part of its plan to regain customer loyalty after the worst service outage in company history.
Starting on Wednesday, BlackBerry users will be able to download a selection of normally-paid-for apps – ranging from games such as The Sims 3 to the Shazam music-discovery app – for free. The offer runs until the end of the year.
"People were very patient through service disruptions," Mr. Balsillie said "We thought this was the best way to show our appreciation." He added the company hasn't concluded exactly how much the move will cost, but will disclose financial details during its next quarterly call.
Since last week's service outage, both RIM's CEOs have been far more visible than usual, hosting conference calls with reporters and filming an apology video for customers. With the technical glitches fixed, Mr. Balsillie sought to highlight the positives for RIM. He said no carriers have contacted him directly about compensation as a result of the outage. He also compared the cause of the outage – a technical failure at one of RIM's network operating centres – to the brakes failing on a car.
"These are not foreseeable events," he said.
Even as RIM continues to garner negative headlines in North America and Europe, the company remains dominant in overseas markets, where the BlackBerry remains a marquee brand. Though this may change as cheap devices running on Google's Android system begin to flood those markets, for many app developers, there has never been a better time to make software for the BlackBerry.
Ezequiel D'Amico and Federico Vidueiro, sitting at the Marriott's Starbucks preparing for a pre-conference meeting with RIM executives, said there has been too much focus on RIM's performance in North America. The game developers with Buenos Aires-based Eudaimonia have developed apps for huge global players such as Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures and Yamaha, but do not develop in Latin America for Apple's iOS – only for BlackBerry.
"We're from Latin America, there, BlackBerry is the kingpin," Mr. D'Amico says.
Some of the applications that Research In Motion will make available to its users from Wednesday to make amends for the service outage. The company says more titles will be revealed:
iSpeech Translator Pro: Speech recognition technology converts words, spoken or typed into the phone, into multiple languages.
DriveSafe.ly Enterprise: Reads text and e-mail messages aloud.
Nobex Radio: Streams AM, FM and Internet stations.
Shazam Encore: Premium version of song-recognition program displays lyrics as the music plays.
Vlingo Plus Virtual Assistant: Voice recognition allows users to text, update Facebook and other tasks.
Photo Editor Ultimate: Allows photo editing on the BlackBerry.
Games: The Sims 3; Bejeweled; N.O.V.A.; Texas Hold'em Poker 2; Bubble Bash 2
The Canadian Press