RIM mounts a challenge with updated BlackBerry, but CEO admits recovery a struggle

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has promised it won’t get rid of its iconic physical keyboards on smartphone devices, a day after it released a new touchscreen phone and operating system that it hopes will lift the company out of the doldrums.

The comments were made by chief executive Thorsten Heins at the BlackBerry World conference, as the RIM head struggles to keep the Canadian smartphone maker competitive as it battles against more powerful manufacturers, primarily Apple.

Heins, who has only been in the top role for 12 weeks, took to the stage yesterday at a conference to address the prototype BlackBerry 10 announcement – but surprised some when he admitted the role had been more challenging than he first thought.

“I was focused on what I was supposed to do,” he said. “The CEO role is a broader one. That’s when I had access to all the data… But I’m excited about the progress my management team has accomplished in three months.”

RIM market share is in danger of dropping to 5%, analysts say, as it only held 8.8% in the fourth quarter. The Canadian government said earlier this year it wouldn’t be opposed to a foreign takeover of the company.

Heins also admitted some of the company’s mistakes, saying that some previous BlackBerry models – panned by critics – weren’t focused enough. That same criticism, Heins said, is something he thinks about constantly.

“That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night,” he said. “What concerns me is I have employees working hard day and night to get things done. They read it too, and then they go home and get asked all the questions by their family, their friends: ‘Hey, what’s going on with you guys?’”

Heins also said previous model launches weren’t the company’s best marketing campaigns. 

“It wasn’t focused. I want us to be so focused we could melt steel,” he said.

The new model and operating system is an attempt to fix that, he said. Yesterday the company unveiled a new prototype phone with a full touchscreen and no physical keypad to speak of.

But it was the new operating system that caught most analysts’ attention. The BlackBerry 10 software is heavily based on QNX, a software company RIM bought in 2010, and is a clear attempt to woo developers and mainstream customers.

Apart from an entirely new visual design, the major change is the new keyboard. Most RIM customers are accustomed to the company’s physical keyboards, and the business has attempted to emulate that experience on a screen.

The “smart touch” keyboard in BlackBerry 10 is designed to adapt to touches, with elements of predictive text. But it also identifies gestures, so users can make swipes to change keyboard layouts and other changes.

Application switching is also designed to be much easier. Instead of opening new apps through the traditional task list, RIM allows users to swipe to show background tasks, which they are then able to sweep through left to right. Early reviews suggest it’s fluid and much easier to use – perhaps easier than Apple or Android devices.

The camera app is another huge change, designed to capture moments that are missed by users not hitting the shutter button quickly enough. The camera can cycle back using a “timeline” and pick frames from the previous few seconds before the picture was taken.

Another massive change is being aimed at developers. RIM is showing off a new app generator it hopes will bring more content, but it has also released a developer toolkit in beta.

Part of creating a successful operating system is bringing developers on board. So far, several major developers ignore RIM and choose iOS, Android and Windows as their main platforms – if RIM wins more content, it may be able to finally mount a mainstream challenge.

While the new on-screen keyboard caused somewhat of a stir, Heins reassured attendees the company wouldn’t be abandoning its iconic physical keyboard.

“We know what our strengths are,” Heins said. “We won’t lose our focus on the physical keypad. It would just be wrong, just plain wrong for us to do this.”

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