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RIM's strategy: It all depends on execution

Chris Umiastowski spent over a decade working as a technology analyst on Bay Street. He now works as an independent analyst and strategy consultant and is blogging from the BlackBerry Developer Conference for the Globe and Mail.

As we head into the second day RIM's BlackBerry Developer Conference, I'm satisfied with the progress that RIM appears to be making on catching up to the competition. The hardware roadmap is good, the operating system is solid, and the developer tools look promising. But I'm not pleased with how well they're communicating their message.

Co-CEO Jim Balsillie was quoted as saying, "We've engineered a leapfrog of the industry. And you're going to see that tomorrow." He was referring to his partner Mike Lazaridis' keynote address which was delivered Tuesday in San Francisco.

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Either I and the rest of the crowd missed the point of the keynote, or Mr. Balsillie continues to make overly aggressive statements that are not backed up with action. I can't see any evidence of Research in Motion leapfrogging the competition in Tuesday's keynote session, nor did anyone that I spoke to see such evidence.

RIM's only significant "announcement", if you can call it that, was the official unveiling of BBX, the future operating system for their handheld devices, based on their acquisition of QNX Systems. But since they didn't announce any hardware or show any real demonstrations of BBX running on smart phones, the announcement was nothing more than a relabeling exercise.

Unfortunately, RIM did nothing to help the developers, customers and investors understand when this new operating system will see the light of day on a smart phone. They did nothing to help us understand when native email will arrive on the Playbook. They did nothing to narrow in on the launch date for the upcoming "Playbook 2.0" operating system upgrade which is supposed to include an Android player, enabling Android apps to run on the Playbook.

Instead, RIM spent a lot of time talking about gaming and HTML5. The games were powerful and impressive, no doubt. But all they represent is how the Playbook (and upcoming BBX OS) can mirror what iOS devices can already do now. It was a focus on "me too" activities, rather than doing something to stand out from the crowd.

The same is true with HTML5, a web-based programming language that can be used for creating apps that run on any mobile platform. RIM demonstrated some impressive graphical capabilities, but all this really means is that the company has some high quality HTML coders on staff. Given how HTML5 is not proprietary, anything RIM demonstrated can also be done on any other competing platform.

One area where RIM impressed the audience related to something called "cascades", which are impressive, unique ways to present data within a user interface. Cascades make consumer or enterprise apps fun and beautiful in a way that differentiates them from Apple's iOS. But aside from an impressive demonstration, the company failed to excite the audience by revealing a specific launch date.

It's easy to conclude that RIM is up to its usual tricks of announcing features and tools way ahead of commercial availability.

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The company also reneged on a promise made at last year's DevCon. No longer do they promise to support Java apps on the BBX operating system. In a hallway conversation, one RIM executive was literally surrounded by developers who wanted to know why their investment in Java codebase would become worthless. While I feel for these developers, I also side with RIM on this one. The future of mobile is C++ and HTML5. It isn't Java. But RIM could have announced an initiative to help Java developers re-write their apps for the new BBX OS. They would have won some important goodwill.

Despite not having much official news at DevCon, I do get a very clear sense that RIM is making very good progress. They're rallying completely behind the future of BBX. They're becoming a very real and competitive gaming platform. They're pushing developers towards industry standard HTML5 coding and even providing open-source tools to speed up a developer's time to market and reduce their required investment.

As a technology enthusiast, I'm happy with what RIM demonstrated at DevCon on Tuesday. I'm happy with what I learned from talking to developers who are involved in porting 3D games to BlackBerry. But as an investor, I'm frustrated at how the company communicates its strategy. So many of the issues that Wall Street wants to hear about were simply left off the agenda.

I came to DevCon hoping to find out if RIM has a shot at winning the #3 position in the smartphone market. From what I'm seeing so far, I believe they can. But a lot will still depend on execution.

I'll continue blogging from DevCon on Wednesday. Stay tuned.

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