RIM CEO: We'll win back users with BlackBerry 10 (Q&A)

CNET sits down with RIM CEO Thorsten Heins to talk about the company's newest OS and the future of BlackBerry.

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Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Watch this: The future of BlackBerry
*Video depicts existing and developer devices, not unannounced hardware.

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins settles all 6 feet, 7 inches of his lanky frame into the high chair of the hotel conference room where we both sit, slumping down slightly before the camera rolls and the questions fly. (Heins quips that he's short for his family; his son stands 6 feet, 10 inches.)

Heins may speak with an executive's calm, practiced ease, but make no mistake that the next six months for RIM and its chief officer will be anything but easy.

With BlackBerry 10 launching January 30, Heins hopes to call the next chapter in RIM's smartphone story a comeback, though it could go the other way as well, with RIM unable to fully recover from its slipping popularity and profits.

However, with two brand-new smartphones lined up for the global launch, and more partnerships in the works, Heins and his team are optimistic. Here's what RIM's leader says about BlackBerry's next generation.

A peek at BlackBerry OS 10's browser, messenger, and flow (pictures)

See all photos

How is RIM going to position itself in this new area of BlackBerry 10 -- new hardware, new software?

Certainly we will be working in the markets that we're in right now, which is smartphones, tablets, enterprise, and consumer, but the reason why we built this new platform was not just to build a new smartphone OS or to build a new tablet OS, right?

I actually truly believe, and I see it a lot when I debate this with economists and market constituents, is that we move into the new economic growth curve of wireless. What is it going to be? It's going to be mobile computing.

Because the devices that you've just seen, they have a computing power that is close to the laptop already. So you will move from some sort of a static computing domain toward "your computing power's always at your hip." Now think about what that would enable in vertical industries and enterprises. It's very, very exciting.

The idea is not just to build a new smartphone OS, the idea is to move this company into the leadership position of mobile computing.

How are you going to leverage BlackBerry 10 apart from smartphones, then? Is it with QNX? Are we going to see another tablet in the future?

No, it's much more than that. BlackBerry 10 is a whole new platform. That's why we had to make the serious decision two years ago whether we join an open-source code platform or whether we build our own. QNX is a great OS, but it's just the OS underneath.

The platform is constituted of all the drivers, all the application frameworks, and when we talk to application developers...they told us what they needed in terms of interfaces and development tools. And we got some pretty darn good feedback on it.

At the base is a fantastic mobile computing platform, and that's what we've built.

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins, November 2012
James Martin/CNET

But, what's it going to look like? I mean, you've got smartphones, you'll probably have a BlackBerry 10 tablet...


Is that a "yes"?

We're thinking about it.

OK, and what else? Does it end there?

QNX is very active in automotive, very active in energy....What you've seen on Blackberry 10 are elements that we call aggregation framework, adapting framework, sharing framework. Think about this in vertical industries.

I'll give you an example. Hospital: Doctor hits the patient room, NFC hits the bed of the patient, gets all the data from the hospital data repository, knows who the patient is, and he goes to Updates.

Updates in this term means what was the surgery, what happened during the surgery, why was it done, how was it done da da da da. He goes into Activity and sees all the medication, all the recent activities that were performed on the patient.

Next example: car. What happened with my car? What is the latest updates on my car? Is there a new software version available? Is there a new hardware version available, is there any action I should take because I need to change something...it's a generic framework that we can apply into various verticals: financial, healthcare, automotive, you name it.

We want to be the key platform provider, we want to be the leader in the mobile computing platform element.

Somebody else might make this hospital equipment.

RIM doesn't know how hospital services work. But we know that we have a platform that will increase productivity and efficiency in hospitals dramatically.

And that's what we're looking toward as a vision. That's not going to happen in the next six months. But this is where the company's moving because the industry is moving there. This is the room of opportunity here.

Is RIM going to have to fight against Android, Microsoft, and Apple in these other spaces?

Absolutely. I mean, competition is always where innovation and growth is, which is always healthy. Why we feel good about it is we had assumed the daunting task of really building a whole new platform in two years. This is the most advanced mobile computing platform on the planet, because it's brand new. It is designed exactly for those requirements and those services.

A lot of respect for what those others are doing. They have great engineers, they have great designers, too, but there is OSes out there that are five years old, there is OSes out there are are starting to fragment. So we feel we have a pretty good shot at it. But it will be a competitive domain, make no mistake about it.

How is RIM going to compete in mature markets?

There's a whole marketing campaign that we're ramping up toward the 30th of January and then beyond that. There's a whole plan that Frank Boulben [RIM's Chief Marketing Officer] and his teams are working on.

Nothing to disclose yet in detail how we're going to do this, but one of the elements is going to be to kind of have a staggered approach to introducing people prior to January 30th to what BlackBerry 10 is and what it does for them -- consumer as much as enterprise.

Watch this: BlackBerry 10 in action

How is RIM going to get back former BlackBerry users who are now on other platforms?

We have a lot of social channels that we track on Facebook and Twitter...we know what people that actually left BlackBerry to another platform think about that platform or what they think about the BlackBerry platform.

There's a lot of comments that say, "Hey, I wanna come back." This is a target segment that our marketing approach will specifically go after.

You cannot be everybody's darling. There is a clear segmentation of who BlackBerry talks to. If your friend is a multitasker, hyperconnected, gets stuff done, she's probably going to be very, very attracted by BlackBerry 10.

But couldn't you argue that every single mobile OS has those, too?

No, no, absolutely not. Because if you look at the integration of all the channels in the BlackBerry Hub, if you look how easy it is to take action within the BlackBerry Hub, where on other devices and OSes, you would have to have this in a note paradigm, in the application grid.

Open Facebook, respond. OK. Open LinkedIn, respond. Open e-mail, respond. It's always this gesture in the application grid. No, I think [BlackBerry 10] is going to be a very compelling user experience. And that's what our tests show, so we have a lot of proof data around this.

What are RIM's sales goals with BlackBerry 10?

The sales goals are: We bring a QWERTY device out and a full-touch device out. We own the QWERTY segment. Nobody builds physical keyboards such as BlackBerry does...So we will own and expand that segment as much as we can. That's the baseline. On touch, our representation in the market, let's say U.S., is a minor representation to put it mildly. The full-touch device will be the instrument with which we will be gaining market share back in the U.S. That's the sales game plan.

How many BlackBerry products will RIM sell in 2013, 2014?

Ballpark is below 10...What I can tell you is that we will be rather puristic in our approach to form factors. You will see a QWERTY and you will see a full-touch. You see this in he high end, you see this in the mid-tier, you see this in the entry level. That gives you a number. And then you probably have different color SKUs and different regional expressions of the same device.

BlackBerrys are high-end devices, but what about devices for emerging markets, where costs need to be lower?

That is an interesting question, because when you look at the dynamics around BlackBerry in emerging markets -- Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa are markets that are very, very strong markets -- you would say, "Wow, those devices need to be at $67."

And that's not where BlackBerry is in those markets. Why is that? Because you have to look at the entire package and what attracts people to BlackBerry is BBM on a competitive BlackBerry.

BlackBerry 10 on the Dev Alpha device
A peek at BlackBerry 10's app store on the prerelease developer device. Lynn La/CNET

We are not, clearly, not just in the low-end, me-too phone game. We cannot do this. I cannot build this $60 BlackBerry. That's not where I want to be. This is not where this company needs to be. We need to be in the aspirational domain, we need to be in the mid-tier, and we need to have services associated to BlackBerry that attract the consumers and make their overall value proposition good.

BlackBerry Messenger just got voice support. How else are you going to leverage BBM?

It's a clear differentiator for us. This is what, besides a good product, makes people really rush to BlackBerry in those regions. Clearly we will invest in that service. I mean, we will expand it, we will innovate on it, we will build on it, and you will hear about this on January 30.

There's quite some, you know, attractive things going on on BBM that we will be disclosing as part of the launch on the 30th of January. But clearly it's a strong foothold that we have and we will continue to drive that innovative forward.

Bloomberg reported that we're going to see our first BlackBerry 10 phones in February.

There's a lot of speculation about when it's really going to be in the shops. What I can tell you is launch date is January 30, that's when we show the devices to the press. And then shortly thereafter, whatever that is, you will see it in the shops.

We're certainly doing our best with the carriers to not have too much of a time gap between the launch and the shop availability because you lose the momentum, you lose the energy. So, you know, you want it to be pretty close.

A lot of former BlackBerry users have been really frustrated because it seems like RIM just disappeared on them, and some of them migrated over to other platforms. What kind of assurance can RIM give them that if they buy one of the new phones, this isn't going to happen again?

We haven't built a new platform for just a year. This platform is going to take us to the next decade...So what they get with BlackBerry 10 is a real future-proof platform and a whole new innovative user paradigm that is not this application grid anymore. That was very intuitive five years ago when it was invented. It was fantastic, right? It really caught on with the user.

But now with the BlackBerry Flow and with Peek and with the Hub concept, it just makes you more productive with less stress, and people will love it.