BlackBerry World opens with worries on RIM

Thousands of software developers, solution providers and telecom managers and corporate executives will descend on Orlando on Monday for Research In Motion’s annual BlackBerry World conference.

It will be the first time they’ll hear new CEO Thorsten Heins in person and get details of the upcoming next generation BlackBerry 10 operating system.

Developers will be given demo BB10 handsets so they can get an idea of how apps they create will perform and look. A software development kit will be released. The long-promised 4G version of the PlayBook tablet might appear.

But no one from Toronto mobile software developer Bnotions is going. “This year there really isn’t any new news that has us on the edge of our seat,” explained CEO Paul Crowe.

Instead, he and his staff will monitor announcements online.

It’s symbolic of the trouble RIM is in.

Despite the conference’s hype many customers and partners are wondering if this will be the last event of its kind. RIM has been losing sales and revenue to Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Android-based smart phones and its stock has steadily fallen, raising questions about the company’s future: Will it abandon making handsets? What assets will it sell? Will it be bought?

Heins has replaced the company’s co-CEOs, is reviewing every inch of operations and suggested almost anything is on the table for the future, including selling all or parts of the business.

The fact is RIM is in a holding pattern until BB10 and a handset that can run it is released later this year. And even then, no one is expecting explosive sales that will double or triple its market share.

Even Heins acknowledges that it will take “a few months or a few quarters” for BB10 to find its feet.

Some industry analysts aren’t sure the company has time on its side.

“If it isn’t wildly unsuccessful, RIM is going to be in serious trouble,” says Michael Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research. “If it is very successful, RIM will be able to tread water and try to rebuild.”

In other words, under the best case scenario in the short term would just hold on to the market share RIM has. Can the company gain in market share? “History says no,” Morgan replied. But, he added, the new platform makes it possible.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, argues that Apple Inc. was in worse shape when Steve Jobs returned to the helm in 1996 and – eventually – turned that company into a powerhouse.

“He brought it back from what was clearly the brink of death,” Enderle said. “RIM’s not there yet, but they very quickly need to get their arms around a strategy that works. They’ve got a lot of good technology, and what’s left of a loyal customer base. But they’re clearly bleeding customers like I’ve never seen a company bleed before, and if they don’t stop it pretty quick they’re going to be done.”

 “It’s not on life support,” said Ramon Llamas, senior analyst for mobile phone technology at IDC. “It’s certainly not dead … I’m not about to write off BlackBerry.”

RIM [Nasdaq: RIMM] has lots of cash, lots of licencing potential, he pointed out. But, he added, it has to create “something people can get excited about.”

Ken Dulaney, a vice-president of research at Gartner who specializes in mobile computing, says his firm advises customers not to abandon the BlackBerry platform despite the growing number of staff who want iPhone and Android devices.

There will always be staff who want a handset with a physical keyboard, he explained. Some organizations will always need RIM’s level of security, he added. “They should be around for quite some time.”

At the same time, Gartner also advises clients to move to a multidevice strategy for mobile application development and management tools as a safe strategy.

Meanwhile Gartner predicts that BlackBerry will have a global market share of 6.8 per cent by the end of this year, 5 per cent by the end of 2015 and 3 per cent by the end of 2016.

There are those who see opportunities who will be at BlackBerry World. One will be former RIM official Walter Kostiuk, president of Los Angeles-based MobileBits, which makes a mobile content management platform.

At the conference the company will announce its PringoMedia streaming media server now has connectivity to BlackBerry 6 and 7 devices, which don’t easily handle push video like Adobe Flash.

There’s some 75 million BlackBerry handsets out there, Kostiuk said, many in the hands of corporate staff. A lot of enterprises want to stream corporate messages and training to them, he said.

PringoMedia is a “stopgap” measure until the release of BlackBerry 10, he said, which handles streaming media better than the earlier platforms.

Kostiuk, who admits it’s painful to watch his former employer struggle, knows RIM’s troubles better than most. For a number of years he was on a team developing a third party application strategy, including an app store. Many analysts believe RIM’s failure to develop an app strategy early has fatally hurt the company.

“Had we been successful, the landscape would be a bit different today,” Kostiuk believes. However during the time he was there (2000-2006), RIM was involved in a huge patent lawsuit, which, he said, complicated promoting other companies applications until it was resolved.

“But,” he adds, “at the end of the day they’re going to be a strong niche player.”

Few at BlackBerry World will be satisfied to hear that.

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