Can Blackberry fight back?

  • 28 February 2012
  • From the section Technology
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I approached the Blackberry stand at Mobile World Congress somewhat nervously on Monday. After all, I have a little history with Research in Motion, the Canadian firm behind what was once the most successful and innovative device the world had ever seen.

For many years, RIM was run by two men, and last year I interviewed them both with rather different outcomes. At the very same Mobile World Congress stand in 2011, Jim Balsillie showed me the Blackberry Playbook, emphasising its "true multi-tasking" - a dig at another tablet device, the iPad. "This is not just another tablet - this is the tablet," he told me.

Then a couple of months later in London, I met his co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, who was in London to give the Playbook another push. But that encounter ended badly, so badly that a long and forensic examination of RIM's troubles on the Verge technology blog, begins with that interview.

Mr Lazaridis, the engineering genius who had founded the business and made it a mobile superpower, had been happy talking about the technological prowess of the Playbook. But when I asked about the security row which had seen various governments demanding access to Blackberry traffic he took offence at the question and called the interview to a halt.

The tension over that issue seemed to reflect a company that had lost confidence in its direction. And 2011 went from bad to worse for RIM, with the Playbook selling poorly, a plunging share price, and agitation from shareholders wanting change.

In January, the co-CEOs stood down, and after two decades of joint leadership RIM put its future in the hands of one man, Thorsten Heins. He's in Barcelona this week, wooing the operators on whom his company's future now depends. I was not astonished to be told that he was unavailable for an interview with me, but I was surprised and pleased that RIM were happy to put up another senior executive, Alec Saunders.

He joined the company last September as vice president of Developer Relations and Platform Development. Behind that corporate gobbledegook is a key role - persuading software developers who are now focused on the Android and Apple platforms that it's worth writing apps for the Blackberry. And, whatever he might have been told about the beast from the BBC, Mr Crawford proved an amiable and fluent evangelist for his company.

In contrast to last year, the Playbook no longer seemed central to RIM's future. There was instead an emphasis on the Blackberry's existing strengths as a communications tool - a device for making calls and sending emails - supplemented by all the bells and whistles which most smartphone users now demand. The current range of devices look good - there is still an appeal to typing on a keyboard rather than a touchscreen, and it's refreshing to see a phone that does not look like every other iPhone or Android clone.

Much store is being set by a new operating system, Blackberry 10, though that won't arrive until the autumn - "good software takes time" says Mr Saunders.

But does RIM have that much time in an industry which is changing so rapidly?

The industry doesn't seem to think so. Mention Blackberry to many people here, and they grimace and change the subject. An assumption is building that RIM will not have the firepower to compete in the smartphone market on its own, and is likely to be sold, perhaps to an Asian company. When that kind of talk spreads, it is difficult to maintain morale in a business.

Alec Saunders insists he loves going to work in the morning, and is convinced that the Blackberry has a bright future. But he and the rest of the new management team are going to have to work fast to make RIM relevant again.