For a business that lost $235m in its last quarter, Research in Motion is remarkably bullish. The one-time smartphone success story has had a difficult few years, encompassing heavy losses, the departure of its founders, a high-profile outage affecting millions of customers in 2011 (not to mention another that hit five million users last month), and the delay of its BlackBerry 10 (BB10) operating system.
The mobile industry is full of attempted comeback stories of companies striving to reclaim former glories after they were overtaken by the market. But new UK and Ireland MD Rob Orr believes RIM is different: ‘The thing that gives me great confidence, aside from what we are building, is the momentum. It’s the momentum we have with our partners and carriers, the eight million active subscribers [in the UK], 90% of which are using BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) that is one of our core services… I have a platform of users, in consumer and enterprise, for whom BB10 is a really exciting journey and I am so excited about taking them on that.’
For Orr, BB10 is central. He has been playing with the OS in active beta for the past three months, and six devices will land next year. Orr is coy on any date and when asked about pricing, he replies: ‘What I am building is the best mobile computing experience that will be competitive with the leading smartphone experiences from competitive platforms. That’s what I am going for.’ Which sounds to Mobile like the devices would be high end. Is that true? ‘It’s a very, very well specced device and we are going after the best mobile computing experience.’ He hints at a 4G device, describing the potential spring launch for next-generation services across the carriers as ‘awesome news for the UK economy and awesome news for UK consumers’.
The bells and whistles of BB10 are impressive. The company is wedded to what RIM CEO Thorsten Heins calls 'peek and flow', which is his way of stripping out the traditional smartphone experience of jumping in and out of apps. Instead, there are a series of active frames, like Windows Phone Live Tiles, and users can access a communication hub with all messages, social networking updates, emails and an immersive calendar. Orr says BB10’s features are critical for differentiation and will be targeted at BlackBerry’s wildly contrasting core audiences of teens and business customers. He says: ‘We are superfocused on the importance of communication for the BlackBerry audience, be that 14-year-old kids that are tweeting and using FourSquare or a 38-year-old enterprising executive. We are reimagining the touch experience on smartphones by removing the in-out paradigm.’
RIM is striving to leave behind its reputation of offering an undercooked apps experience. Orr says it currently has 104,000 apps in place and aims to have the largest selection of apps for any first-generation platform launch. It is preparing to spend heavily to court developers. As well as unveiling BB10 apps for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and FourSquare at its recent BlackBerry Jam Americas event, it is also guaranteeing developers will earn at least $10,000 in their first year, if they have an app in BlackBerry’s catalogue by 21 January and it earns at least $1,000.
Between now and the BB10 launch is the small matter of Christmas. While much has been made of the unprecedented number of postpay customers out of contract, Christmas is traditionally a prepay gifting season and RIM is pushing its range of 9320s. Orr says: ‘Prepay is an area that we remain very strong in. We bring a lot of people to the smartphone experience for the first time. Some of the requirements of that demographic are very well tailored by what we provide.’
Despite the challenges facing RIM, which Orr dismisses as ‘some negative sentiment’, he says he jumped at the chance to take over the business, saying the opportunity to lead the business as it moves from BlackBerry 7 to BB10 is ‘huge’. Networks and retailers are keen for BlackBerry to bounce back, with the manufacturer performing better in the UK than other territories. Orr says it is the strength of the firm’s partnerships that makes him feel BB10 will succeed, despite it coming to market later than the Q4 wave of devices. ‘Partnerships are so important to build momentum,’ says Orr. ‘As we build the new BB10 platform we need that momentum, the hearts and minds in retail, regional sales staff working with us. There’s such a solid foundation and solid bond because they understand what we want and they can help us build BlackBerry 10.’
Blog: Hands-on with BlackBerry 10