Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) has stayed in the news this past month for less than desirable reasons. There was the buyout rumor that Samsung swiftly refuted. Co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie stepped down to make way for Thorston Heins, who got off to a rocky start and fueled concerns that the company lacked direction. Events of the past several days, however, created a clearer picture of RIM’s intended trajectory.
Last week saw a leak of the company’s 2012 road map. It outlined midyear releases of new Curve series smartphones as well as the next member of the PlayBook tablet family. Also on tap: the first RIM phone featuring the BlackBerry 10 operating system. Dubbed the BlackBerry London, this device, due out in time for the holiday shopping season, is clearly the centerpiece of RIM’s business strategy.
Images of the London leaked on Wednesday showed off a sleeker body than had been glimpsed in a mini-leak last fall. It’s a slick, thin slab whose touchscreen and curved lines are reminiscent of several Android devices and Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone. BlackBerry London’s specs prompted RIM to dub it a “superphone”: there’s a 1.5GHz TI OMAP dual-core processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB storage and an 8-megapixel camera. That’s impressive, but short of revolutionary.
Balancing timing and expectations
It’s likely that the London will include the BlackBerry App World, a project intended to currently encouraging Android developers to get the apps ready for inclusion on the new PlayBook OS. Access to a decent library of applications, which BlackBerry devices have previously lacked, and the touchscreen interface raise the possibility that London won’t be immediately devoured by its longstanding competitors.
Key problems for RIM remain timing and consumer confidence. The late release of the London gives Google and Apple plenty of time to roll out tricks of their own. It also provides time for customers to wander away from current BlackBerry products to the ready-to-go options from RIM competitors.
Confidence in BlackBerry devices has faltered since last year’s much-hyped release of the PlayBook, which rolled out sans native email or BlackBerry Messenger. The improved PlayBook OS debuted at the International Consumer Electronics Show in early January, but a BlackBerry 10 preview didn’t materialize. RIM’s official stance is that the London was pushed back due to a chipset manufacturing delay, but foundational operating system problems prompted rumors among analysts that continued functionality issues are the true cause.
RIM has backed itself into a corner that will be difficult to escape if the London fails straight out of the gate. There’s another BlackBerry 10 device expected to follow, in December, but it’s unlikely to sell if the London goes down. The PlayBook already has egg on its face. Planned releases of new Curve and Bold smartphones might be enough to retain old customers but they likely won’t woo new users.
RIM shares closed on Wednesday up 0.4%, at $16.70, following word that further board changes are in store. It was up over 2% midday on Thursday, to $17.06, an amount that’s 76% below the 52-week high. RIM has to manage a steep, uphill climb ahead if it wants to regain ground.