Blackberry: Still looking smart
In a packed noisy hall on the Barcelona fairground I came across a middle-aged man driving a sports car at dangerous speeds. Jim Balsillie was wielding a tablet computer and was not to be interrupted until he had finished the race. Then the co-CEO of RIM put the Blackberry Playbook down and gave me a clear message - don't expect my company to give up on the smartphone race.
Last Friday that appeared to be the message from Nokia's Stephen Elop as he unveiled his firm's smartphone partnership with Microsoft - "it's going to be a three horse race," he told us, and he wasn't including the Blackberry amongst the horses.
Jim Balsillie looked surprised when I suggested to him that his firm has been left behind by Apple and Android and now risked being run over by the Nokia/Windows machine.
"Are some people writing us out?" he asked in tones of wonderment, and then reeled off a string of impressive statistics: Blackberry was the number one phone in the UK in 2010, number one in the Americas, number two in smartphones around the world, and grew sales by 70% in 2010.
And he painted a picture of an even brighter future of continued growth, much of it coming from the Playbook he was still clutching. You might think there were now too many tablets out there, with impressive new Android slates this week from the likes of Samsung and HTC. But Mr Balsillie thinks there's going to be a big shift towards this form of computing, and that his PlayBook will be a standout device. "This is not just another tablet, it's the tablet," he told me.
Then he ran through the specs - full Flash, full HTML5, dual core processors, an open web environment and open tools. The word open kept coming up - without mentioning the iPad, he was sending a clear message that the PlayBook was going to do lots of things that Apple just won't allow. In the great philosophical battle between Apple's walled garden and Android's wild open spaces, it's clear which camp RIM is in.
So is he right about the ability of the Canadian firm to keep ahead of the game? Amidst all the noise about Apple and Android, Nokia and Microsoft it has been easy to forget about Blackberry. But there has been quite an extraordinary transformation in its image - from the exclusive tool of e-mail-obsessed business road warriors to teenage plaything. The free Blackberry Messenger service now seems to be the preferred communication channel for millions of 15 to 25-year-olds, for whom the acronym BBM has entered the language.
The worry must be that the high-end customers, on whom RIM had such a tight hold through corporate chief information officers, are beginning to desert. Those CIOs are often doing Blackberry no favours, imposing such strict limits on how staff use the smartphones - no apps unless we approve them - that they spark a revolt, with young executives demanding an iPhone instead.
And will those teenagers stick with Blackberry once they grow out of their BBM years? Or will they, along with large sections of the smartphone crowd, switch to Android, or even Windows Phone 7?
Well some interesting research from a company called MediaCells suggests that, in the short term at least, the Blackberry is not going to get squeezed out of the race. It has looked at the UK phone market in 2010, and made a prediction for this year. Mediacells reckons all the major operating systems - except Symbian - will enjoy rapid growth, but guess who will come out on top? Yes, the Blackberry, just edging out Android, followed by Apple, with Windows Phone 7 a distant fourth.
"RIM will continue to acquire consumers from ailing platforms," says the report, "as the social media consumer demands QWERTY capability for prolific updating of Twitter and Facebook."
At an awards ceremony in Barcelona last night, Apple's iPhone 4 won device of the year - though the company "couldn't be bothered to send someone along to collect the prize", as the compere Jonathan Ross almost put it. By contrast, HTC, which unveiled another clutch of good-looking Android phones at Mobile World Congress, was the manufacturer of the year, and its CEO Peter Chou did turn up, winning warm applause from the crowd.
The mobile industry, which admires but does not like Apple, has fallen in love with Android but perhaps it's time it paid just a little more attention to Blackberry.