ORLANDO, Fla. -- BlackBerry maker Research In Motion showed off some cool new features today for its upcoming BlackBerry 10 software, but will it be enough to stop the company's free-fall into the smartphone abyss?
That's the big question that fans of the once mighty smartphone and other industry watchers are asking here today at the BlackBerry World conference. Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg said he is optimistic about the company's prospects, if the company is really able to deliver on its promises.
"RIM's sneak peek of the new BlackBerry 10 shows the company is focused on details that differentiate meaningfully," Gartenberg said. "But the key will be shipping and execution."
Indeed, RIM did not show off any actual devices here at the conference, the company's annual pow-wow where customers, partners, fanboys, and press descend to hear what's next from the handset maker. Instead the company showed off reference devices it's calling BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha. It's even been handing out these reference devices to developers to help seed the market ahead of the launch of new smartphones that actually run BlackBerry 10.
RIM's new CEO Thorsten Heins said he understands that the market is anxious to get its hands on BlackBerry 10 devices. But he said the company is taking its time to make sure it is getting the software and the hardware just right. He didn't give any indication when the new devices will hit the market. But some rumors peg the launch as early as August of this year, while others say it could be October.
One thing is clear -- the longer that RIM waits to launch its device the more it risks losing even more market share to competitors, Apple and Android. In the past year, RIM has lost nearly half of its market share, according to Gartner. In the fourth quarter of 2010, the company had about 14 percent global market share. By the end of 2011, it had about 8.8 percent market share. RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Sue told Reuters that RIM's market share could go down to less than 5 percent.
The problem that RIM faces as it tries to retrench and get its new software in order is that its competitors are not holding back. Google Android and Apple continue to pick up share from customers who are fleeing the tired and stale BlackBerry platform. A major worldwide outage in 2011 also didn't help build confidence among loyal enterprise users, who are now looking to other platforms as more and more of their employees bring their own devices to work.
But Heins said that the company is on track to deliver the devices this year. And he said he doesn't foresee any delays, something that has plagued the company in the past as it tried to launch new products.
"We are on schedule with the launch," he said. "And we are really close."
What's more, he indicated that the new BlackBerry devices will be using fully baked software. This was a problem with the launch of the BlackBerry PlayBook table a year ago. When the device launched, the software was still nearly in beta testing. Few apps existed and the software was buggy. The device has largely been a flop, and devices still sit on shelves unused and unsold.
Some of the new features that RIM showed off during its demo here today included a revamped virtual keyboard that learns not only the words users might use but the typing behavior of that user to make typing more accurate. It also showed off a camera app that allows users to recapture moments they may have missed because their fingers were too slow in hitting the shutter. The camera actually caches frames in view of the lens, so that users can roll back to images that may have been captured seconds earlier. And the company showed off the multitasking chops of the new device showing how apps can run in the background and can easily be tabbed and navigated.
Analysts, BlackBerry fans, and partners were generally impressed with the new features and what they foretell for the upcoming devices.
"If these demos are representative of the final BB10 experience, then RIM has its groove back," Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD Group, tweeted during the keynote speech this morning.
Still, there's no question RIM has a long road ahead of it. And many here were reminded of the failings of other companies that developed slick new software that came much too late to the market. Palm, which essentially invented the smartphone market with its early Palm Pilots, had lagged behind its competitors for years. The company tried to revive its fortunes with the WebOS platform, which got rave reviews from the technology press and from some consumers. But the software came much too late. And the hardware was only so-so. Palm, which didn't have the scale to compete against the likes of the iPhone and the growing dominance of Google, sold out to Hewlett-Packard. And with that sale, the WebOS platform died a quick death.
But Kevin Michaluk of the blog Crackberry said that BlackBerry is in a far different place than Palm.
"BlackBerry devices are in the mainstream," he said. "Palm was for early adopters. It never had the scale that BlackBerry has had."
Indeed, even with RIM's declining market share, BlackBerry still has more than 77 million customers. And its reach is global. RIM says that its customers are in 164 markets and territories worldwide. And it has plans to roll out devices in additional countries.
RIM executives also say the company is making headway with developers. And at the BlackBerry World conference here the company highlighted the fact that it's seen a 240 percent growth in Playbook apps over the past year. Of course this growth isn't so impressive when you think that it was starting from zero. But executives say that even this growth shows that some developers still see RIM as a valuable company to develop applications for. And the company sees Playbook app development as a precursor to BlackBerry 10 apps.
Alec Saunders, vice president of developer relations for RIM, said that his team is working hard to sign up new developers and to get them excited about the platform. He said that apps will be an important selling point for the new BlackBerry 10 smartphones because they must be able to compete with the iPhone and Google Android devices. But he said that the company's real focus and differentiation is creating devices that will help communicate more efficiently. After all, he said that is what BlackBerry has always been about.
"BlackBerry users are people who are hungry to get something done," he said. "They aren't the ones sitting on the train watching episodes of Seinfeld."
Still he said that carrying all the popular apps and having a good multimedia experience for users is necessary to compete.
"It has to be a great multimedia device," he said. "That's table stakes these days. But that doesn't mean we have to go out and build an iTunes-like store."