RIM shows signs of change at BlackBerry World

Thorsten Heins, president and CEO of Research In Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry, delivers the keynote speech during the BlackBerry World conference, May 1, 2012, in Orlando Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Reinhold Matay

ORLANDO, Fla. - Amid the palm trees and theme parks of sunny Orlando, the Canadian company that once revolutionized the mobile phone industry spent a very expensive week trying to sell the idea that the BlackBerry isn't a dying technology.

Thousands of app developers, journalists and bloggers descended on the vacationers' city for the BlackBerry World conference where a rush of flashy showcases, meetings and parties were designed mostly to champion a selection of new smartphones that probably won't be delivered for another six to eight months.

It's a strategic move for Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) that could ultimately play an important role in rescuing the company's sagging reputation among the media, analysts and investors — that's if everything goes according to plan.

RIM's annual showcase takes place at the Marriott World Center, a sprawling complex that acts as a mothership for all of the related events that surround it. Thousands of people from around the globe stay at the homebase hotel and RIM regularly busses in others from neighbouring resorts.

For a few days, the area turns into a small city of well-dressed technology enthusiasts who are mostly isolated from the outside world. Some come to negotiate agreements, or learn about RIM's plans for the future, while others make it clear they're primarily here to party, and take advantage of the free food and open bars.

For them, there was endless stream of goodies, starting early in the morning with a juice bar sponsored by a U.S. mobile phone carrier, and free bagged lunches (one attendee complained that RIM used to offer a more lavish buffet).

Once the sun sets, the parties begin: RIM held one that included a performance by New York DJs the Martinez Brothers, who have figured prominently in their ad campaigns, while a mobile phone operator hosted a concert with rappers Pitbull and T-Pain.

It's a strategy used by many corporations to curry favour with the brains that could boost their operations bottom line, but for RIM, this year was more about starting to rebuild its reputation as a smartphone leader, and convincing app developers to come onside.

At this point, it's hard to tell whether the event either helped or hurt the company, but judging by RIM's volatile stock, investors aren't impressed yet. Since BlackBerry World began on Tuesday, the company's stock has fallen 11 per cent.

For newly appointed chief executive Thorsten Heins, it's not for trying. He was paraded around numerous times to make a good impression: first unveiling the prototype BlackBerry 10 operating system on Tuesday accompanied by an elaborate lights show and pounding club beats.

"Let's rock and roll this," he quipped at the event, clearly missing the irony of the music selection.

The speech, or as RIM puts it a "general session," gave the world its first glimpse at some flashy features that make typing messages and taking good pictures easier.

Later Heins mingled with the crowd at an official party held at the Universal Studios theme park, sneaking away to ride the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller-coaster. Though Heins eked by with his towering six-foot-six frame, his son was turned away for being too tall.

He also reached out to media with an unprecedented, nearly hour-long panel session to answer questions about the company's direction.

The personal touch from the executive marked a significant change for a company that was once run by co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the two men who helped build the BlackBerry empire but often shied away from the spotlight.

When both men had exited their leadership roles, and Heins took their place, signs began to emerge that RIM was a company undergoing some major changes.

"There was a lot of stuff going on, but there was a little bit of a lack of direction" in its technological developments, Heins told the media briefing.

He said that in recent months, morale has increased with employees and that regular town hall meetings ensure staff are on the same page.

A similar message was echoed by the company's media relations staff, who stopped short of getting too specific, but insisted that they'd learned from past mistakes. RIM was harshly criticized for its lack of communication during the worst service outage in its history last year.

If RIM is launching a rescue effort, then their work has only begun. During the conference, the company had to admit that they were behind an anti-Apple flashmob that took place in Australia last week. Dozens of people in black clothing showed up in a coach bus and waved signs at shoppers inside a Sydney Apple store that told them to "Wake Up."

At the conference, the company faced the challenge of sending developers home with the skeleton outline of its new operating system, but then clarifying to the public that pictures of the plain black device weren't images of a phone that would ever hit stores.

"We need to improve our marketing," Heins said, pointing in particular to the company's muddled global rollout of the BlackBerry 7 operating system last year.

"It was not coherent. It was not really what RIM was about."

The company is in the process of hiring a new head of marketing, a role it expects to fill soon.

In the meantime, RIM has to contend with relentless speculation about a potential takeover, partly due to its weak share price. Heins said plans are to move forward with developing its operating system and unveiling the new devices later this year.

Analysts are generally in agreement that it'll take a showcase of new products before any of them even consider a stronger vote of confidence. Even then, RIM will likely to face further skepticism until the first round of sales numbers are released, and that probably won't happen until early next year.

"What will determine RIM's success or failure is not how great its next smartphone is, but the quality of the software that drives it, and we're only going to know that once the devices roll out," said technology analyst Carmi Levy.

"So, the clock starts ticking now a little bit louder."