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Lazaridis rallies BlackBerry app army

RIM Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis addresses DevCon in San Francisco on Tuesday.


Research In Motion Ltd. has a plea for its legion of application developers: Stick with us.

The Canadian technology giant spent its annual get-together with developers reassuring them that the BlackBerry platform has a bright future that will bring profit for those who tag along.

At the annual DevCon developer conference, RIM unveiled its new unified operating system called BBX that will run on all its future smart phones and tablets, as well as a new toolkit that will make it easier for application developers to write software for RIM's platform.

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For RIM, keeping developers on board is crucial to ensure a healthy pipeline of BlackBerry apps is in the works as RIM makes the transition to the new operating system.

"I cannot underscore just how important you are to us," RIM founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis told the crowd of developers at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco.

But as the technology world turned to RIM's conference in San Francisco for signs of an end to a string of setbacks and disappointing results, the company's presentation left many underwhelmed.

"It was missing a big 'wow' announcement," said Robert Virkus of the Bremen, Germany-based app developer Enough Software, as he clutched one of the free PlayBook tablets given out at the conference. "The PlayBook is nice – we love to get gadgets. But I much rather would have loved to get something running the new BBX system – like a smart phone."

Neither Mr. Virkus nor his colleague, mobile developer Andre Schmidt, think RIM is doomed. But they left Mr. Lazaridis's keynote address without a clear idea of the path forward. "If there were five new BlackBerry devices, and they were presented right here, that would be like, 'Wow. The future is here,'" Mr. Schmidt said. "This is just promises."

The Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry-maker has had a tough year since last year's developer conference, when the company released its PlayBook tablet. Apple Inc.'s iPhone and devices running Google Inc.'s Android operating system have pummelled RIM's market share, the company has been hounded by calls for an executive shakeup and there have been numerous clashes with authoritarian-minded governments over access to RIM's secure wireless devices. A global service outage last week dented the reputation for reliability that BlackBerry's brand is known for.

After apologizing for the service outage and unveiling BBX, Mr. Lazaridis went into the technical details for the tech-savvy crowd. But many in the audience were left craving the sort of spectacle usually delivered by the late Steve Jobs of Apple, and there was no clear timeline on a release of new devices running BBX, which is powered by the software acquired when RIM bought Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems last year.

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Kris Thompson, an analyst with National Bank Financial, said the company still has a strong foundation to be a formidable smart phone contender in the future, but that losing developers is a key risk.

"RIM's recurring theme is, unfortunately, 'available later,'" he said of Tuesday's announcements. "The vast majority of developers are, in our view, going to abandon RIM if the company doesn't launch more competitive BBX-based handsets soon."

In an interview, Alec Saunders, RIM's vice-president of developer relations, said BBX will provide the right platform to keep developers making apps for BlackBerry. "Applications sell platforms," he said. "So we need to get out there. We need to recruit developers to target our platform. I think BBX is the right step forward."

If it's a step forward, it seems that RIM – which some say frequently overpromises and too often under-delivers -- has a long way to go. One member of the online tech press grumbled that he wanted to "punch someone in the face" after the keynote speech ended without specific details of new products or a set timeline for releases. This, after RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie said on Monday that Mr. Lazaridis's speech would blow people away with new announcements – which many took to mean that the PlayBook might finally get a native e-mail and calendar app of its own. But as Tuesday drew to a close, there was nothing on that front.

"As a developer, I'm extremely wary of a company that can't even figure out how to add functionality to its own devices," said Kerry Morrison, the CEO of Toronto-based app-maker Endloop Mobile. As his company pushes forward with new products for clients on multiple mobile platforms, including Windows Phone 7, "we've not even considered creating BlackBerry versions of anything we've done or currently have in development," he added.

RIM remains a highly profitable company, and executives said the August launch of new BlackBerrys – which run the BB7 operating system – was the most successful launch in the company's history. And even as Android grows in popularity, the five million BlackBerry apps downloaded each day tend to make more money for their developers, RIM executives say.

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Kunal Gupta, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Polar Mobile, a company that has made hundreds of BlackBerry apps, said, "The message was clear today about BlackBerry as a platform that is easy to develop for … and most importantly, [for]making money on."

The company also remains strong in emerging markets, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America. Many developers from Argentina and Chile remain upbeat about the company, and were buoyed by the announcements.

Julio Roca, the director of Buenos Aires-based iPhoideas, said RIM's BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service rules the market in Argentina, but that his clients are increasingly asking for Android apps.

"I am more confident about BlackBerry, I have seen great things [today]" Mr. Roca said. "I think with BBX, it will be easier for developers and the new [BlackBerrys]are great. I think, if they move fast, they will still be the leader in Latin America. I don't know about here, though."

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