If I told you that a new operating system was unveiled this week blending the best aspects of Palm's webOS, Google's (GOOG) Android, Apple's (AAPL) iOS and Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Phone - would you get excited? If I told you that the company unleashing this new operating system on the world was Research In Motion (RIMM) would I still have your attention?
I hear the word BlackBerry and my mind quickly conjures up an image of Skee-Ball. Not a bunch of smiling 6-year-olds loosely whipping the weighted balls down the middle of the alley - my BlackBerry Skee-Ball vision is much more depressing. I think of the middle-aged man (probably with a mustache), alone in the corner and taking way too much time lining up his shot. This Chuck E Cheese local is cognitively avoiding the safe shot down the middle for guaranteed points as he goes for the all-or-nothing 100 point hole precariously perched in the top right and left corners of this classic game. To me - this middle-aged, mustachioed Skee-Baller is Research In Motion (RIMM). What used to be really fun to watch is now just a little sad.
It's been a very important week for Research in Motion as the company's annual partner conference is under way in Orlando, Florida. The Canadian mobile-phone maker that used to have a choke hold on the business sector is now gasping for air as it shows off its latest creation - BlackBerry 10. The new device, slated for a public launch later this year, is part of the company's plan to change drivers, step on the gas and crane its neck out the window to try and catch a glimpse of the front-runners in the mobile operating system space - Apple and Google. Unfortunately, this tactic might just result in some messed up hair and a mouthful of bugs.
Shares of Research In Motion are hovering near a 52-week low under $13 per share.
Recent reports from IDC showed that Research In Motion's share of the global smartphone market fell to about 6.7% in the first quarter of this year, compared with 13.6% for the same period last year. After Research In Motion's lackluster results in the last quarter, co-CEO Jim Balsille, COO of Global Operations Jim Rowan and CTO David Yach have all been replaced. These moves come in addition to the company switching its operating system to a new QNX-based one similar to that used on its PlayBook tablet. By the way, the company only shipped 500,000 BlackBerry PlayBook tablets last quarter. This recent strategy looks like the exact opposite of sexy to savvy investors betting on a turnaround.
Research In Motion certainly has its share of doubters, but a vocal minority is applauding the company's most recent decision to hand out thousands of free prototypes of its new smartphone to developers at the current conference. In addition to giving away prototypes, the company is also incentivizing developers with a quirky app guarantee. Research In Motion is promising app makers a minimum of $10,000 for their creations. If an app fails to generate at least that much in sales, the company will cut you a check for the difference. As a tech investor, I'm excited to see this level of creativity coming from the BlackBerry boss, but on the other hand, I really wish this creativity was being funneled into other channels.
Much of Research In Motion's slide to the back of the line has been attributed to the lack of a robust media ecosystem to support its handsets. Everyone else from Apple to Google to Amazon (AMZN) has a vibrant content library of assets and apps to constantly keep users coming back for more. For the new BlackBerry 10 to be successful, it needs the developer community to hoist it up on its shoulders. While handing out free prototypes and guaranteeing monetary rewards is a nice start - is it enough to pull some horsepower away from the industry leaders? Probably not. According to research firm IDC, just 16% of developers were "very interested" in creating apps for new BlackBerry devices, compared with 79% for Android and 89% for the iPhone. This is a huge problem.
It has taken nearly three years to build out the BlackBerry 10, and in the world of emerging technology, this might as well have been three decades. Over that same period of time, all the major competitors have shined up their latest next-generation devices and once-forgotten players like Nokia (NOK) have gotten back into the game in a meaningful way. Nokia's new Lumia 900 smartphone is actually quite impressive and its strategic partnership with Microsoft symbolizes a valiant effort to rule the enterprise market once dominated by BlackBerry.
Enterprise-focused fans have been waiting for a new BlackBerry evolution and they did get a couple tasty morsels that might just placate them until a public launch. During the conference, Research In Motion Chief Executive, Thorsten Heins rallied the fans in attendance by calling up friends from Salesforce.com (CRM) and Cisco (CSCO). To enterprise users - this is their Elvis. Heins also dropped several hints that the BlackBerry 10 device would launch around October, later this year. This proposed launch date would likely coincide with the debut of Apple's sixth-generation iPhone. It should be of no surprise to you that BlackBerry fans typically loathe Apple fans. The upcoming launch war is at least a competition that allows followers to root for the under dog.