BlackBerry 10: How the former RIM is reinventing itself

There were at least a dozen spotlights sweeping the dark, grand ballroom of the Carlu in Toronto where Research in Motion was hosting its BB10 launch event on Wednesday, but if you looked really closely you would notice they weren’t just any spotlights. Each one was shining a pattern on the wall, kind of like Batman’s bat signal, of seven dots in a semi-circular pattern. This was the familiar BlackBerry logo, and it was only a taste of the rebranding to come.

The announcement that RIM would officially change its name to its flagship product reminds me a lot of a decision by Steve Jobs many years ago to remove the rainbow of colours in the Apple logo but to retain the overall shape of it so it could glow on the backs of laptops and smartphones. “It’s our swoosh,” he said at the time, referring to Nike.

BlackBerry is an icon all its own, but the question remains whether it will be treated with similar reverence by investors and, more importantly, consumers now that the Z10, Q10 and BB10 OS have been unveiled.

Who is the BlackBerry user?

In his keynote speech from New York, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins described the company as targeting a specific kind of customer. This is the “hyper-connected” type that want to get the most out of their smartphones. “It’s about transforming from mobile communication to true mobile computing,” he said. “We need to offer more ways to connect, not just to other people but the whole world around you.”

That’s an interesting move because BlackBerry has been seeing its biggest growth in the last year overseas, in emerging markets where people may be adopting their first smartphones. In North America, there is still a sizeable portion of the population that remain on feature phones and may not be ready to dive head-first in social media, video chats and other advanced features.

To an extent, however, BlackBerry is appealing to both the highly experienced user and the novice with its latest operating system and devices. Despite all the discussion around touchscreens versus QWERTY keyboards, the firm has focused less on recreating the phone than the phone experience itself.

New features, new approach

Features that let people move easily between applications and functions (more easily, it should be noted, than even Microsoft’s recent Windows Phone 8), predictive typing designed to help speed up the typing of e-mail messages and screen sharing are not necessarily breakthroughs but they make communicating a lot more intuitive.

We haven’t yet coined a word akin to “surfing” the Web when we talk about everything we do on mobile devices, but BlackBerry gave its own new feature set names as simple as Hub, Flow, Peek and Remember. After building its reputation by appealing to highly sophisticated corporate types, this was a friendlier, more approachable version of the company we called RIM, from the tie-free executives doing the demos to the software inside the products.

“There wasn’t a ton of really new stuff, but I was impressed with the way it seemed to coalesce,” said Mark Tauschek, an analyst with Info-Tech Research based in London, Ont. “They certainly went all in. I think they have a shot.”

They also have something else: love. I have been to countless launches and product demos, and I have never witnessed the kind of encouragement and support that was evident in Toronto and in other cities via broadcast and Twitter. You could liken it to the days when Apple had microscopic market share in the PC sector and we talked about the “Mac faithful,” but this wasn’t fan-boy adoration. It was sincere hope for a comeback by a company that has made mistakes but obviously experienced some unavoidable bad luck.

Although investors didn’t seem overly won over after the launch -- RIM stock was down 5.47 per cent to $14.85 on the TSX around midday and down 4.28 per cent to US$14.99 on the Nasdaq-- one of BlackBerry’s long-term assets is an appreciative audience who may be willing to make it a strong third choice after Android and iOS.

There’s a neat feature in the new BlackBerry phones called “Time-shift” where you can roll back a photograph to the moment before someone blinked their eyes, sneezed or did something else to look bad. For a few hours on Wednesday, it was like the whole world wanted to offer the same thing to BlackBerry.