Don’t be quick to dismiss BlackBerry just yet: If the upbeat mood at the recent BlackBerry World Conference 2012 was indicative of its future, the smartphone pioneer is still very much in the game.
“A lot has been said and written about BlackBerry,” said Thorsten Heins, the new chief executive of Research In Motion (RIM), in his keynote speech in the annual gathering held this year in Orlando, Florida. He was acknowledging the beating his company has taken, both in the media and the bottom line.
In recent years, BlackBerry has been losing significant market share to iPhone and Android-powered devices.
“But let me be clear, I’m here because I believe in the unique value that BlackBerry delivers to our customers,” Heins added.
He then unveiled the much-awaited BlackBerry 10 platform, which will roll out later this year. It is aimed at competing against the popular Apple iOS and Google’s Android operating systems.
There was thunderous applause when Heins finally whipped out the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha, a sleek bar device that’s slightly wider and about half an inch longer than an iPhone. It was not an end-user device, but a prototype intended only for app developers. Still, it generated lusty hoots when an engineer previewed onstage what the new OS can do.
The BlackBerry 10 is the result of a two-year project, and the BlackBerry tablet, PlayBook, was a preview of the new OS environment, according to Martyn Mallick, vice president for global alliances and business development. Not surprisingly, the Dev Alpha responded to the same fingertip gestures as the PlayBook’s.
There’s much to look forward to, indeed. As Vivek Bhardwaj, head of software portfolio, demonstrated, the BlackBerry’s distinct ability to multitask—you can open as many apps and functions at the same time, and they remain running on the background as you perform other tasks on your device—is even more seamless in the new OS. “You can open photos, PDF, it doesn’t matter, and easily get back to your conversation,” Bhardwaj said.
RIM is expected to build dramatically the number of apps available to users with the roll-out of BlackBerry 10.
Mallick said that the new devices later in the year will not look like the Dev Alpha, but the first will be an all-touch device. BlackBerry, however, is known for its solid keyboard, such that there will still be new devices with the physical keyboard.
On the BlackBerry 10, the typing performance is enhanced, with increased responsiveness so users are able to type fast and accurately, said Bhardwaj. On the touch device, it mimics the physical keyboard, and has been designed even for one-hand typing, with easy fingertip and swipe gestures.
Its camera function is just as impressive, with, for instance, a touch dial tool that allows the user to “go back in time,” say, you blink as the camera clicks.
“We are making you agile and nimble,” said Heins. “We know what we need to do to save you time. This is why we invented push [e-mail], and why we love BBM.”
Even as news reports continue to hammer on RIM’s declining stocks value, in the Philippines, the Ontario-based company is quite bullish in promoting BlackBerry, with a campaign that’s hinged on BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), its exclusive instant-messaging app. RIM believes it has much potential in a locale where 1.8 billion SMS are sent daily, or about 120 SMS/person.
Hastings Singh, RIM managing director for South Asia, says BlackBerry’s success in the region has been BBM-driven.
Through one of the local service providers, BBM is being offered for a low P99/month, or practically unlimited chat, voice messaging and photo sharing with other BlackBerry users.
“Those who know BlackBerry know what BBM can do for you,” said Cameron Vernest, RIM’s country manager for the Philippines. “We’re trying to drive awareness.”
RIM’s regional executives are also leveraging their campaign on Filipinos’ social nature.
“The Philippines has the highest Facebook penetration,” noted Vernest. “Ninety-three percent of users are online daily… We’re going beyond BBM.”
While BlackBerry has had a long reputation as a high-end workhorse, it’s strategically trying to capture even the low-end market here as RIM sees it as a “huge opportunity.”
“In his keynote, Thorsten asked who’s the BlackBerry user, and he said it’s successful people,” Vernest recalled. “But the definition of success depends on who you’re targeting. In the high end, it may be about closing a deal for our business customers. In the low end, it can be young students doing a project and finishing it… [We’re] developing a relevant message to different target groups.”
Industry observers say BlackBerry is losing out to competitors’ sexier, flashier images. BlackBerry’s image has always been that of a serious phone.
But RIM claims over 50 percent of its 77 million global customers are not enterprise users. In Asia, its users are mostly the consumer market.
As proof of its commitment to the Philippine market, RIM is working closely with local providers to make sure the devices and the service rates are affordable to new users. Recently, it launched with Globe Telecom several new BlackBerry 7 devices that come free with subscription (starts at Plan P499).
Comparing the Philippines to the Indonesian market where it has a stronghold, Singh said devices here are, in fact, more affordable as more BlackBerry subscribers are postpaid, so the units are subsidized. Filipinos pay less up front.
“But the prices are something we need to look into in total, not just the up-front but also the monthly fee,” he said. The cheapest subscription is P99/month with Globe, which is unlimited BBM. For social network users, there’s P299/month.
Eighty percent of smartphone users are in Metro Manila, but Singh said they’re extending their reach toward the other regions, now with 800 retail channels nationwide.
Vernest added they have 39 service centers set up through the local providers, thus solving a problem for BlackBerry users who were often told their defective units had to be brought to Singapore for servicing.
RIM is also setting up a physical office in the Philippines, though the execs declined to discuss details on this, as well as plans for a concept store.
In a press conference after his keynote speech in Orlando, Heins addressed the demoralizing news and criticisms hurled against his company. “I’m all for criticism and debate,” he said. “I can take a lot of hits; I’m trained for that.
“What bothers me is that I have employees who work day and night. They know it’s a big fight. And people ask them what happened.
“But morale is in an increasing level. The team sees the convergence.”