At a trade-show booth bathed in electric blue light, Research In Motion Ltd.staff in BlackBerry shirts are busy showing off the company's latest devices.
Traffic at their Consumer Electronics Show setup is composed mainly of representatives of big buyers from retail outlets and corporate IT departments that have long prized the BlackBerry smartphone for its security. But below the huge banners on the wall showing close-up shots of BlackBerrys' iconic keyboards, there are no brand new gadgets at the RIM booth to compete with those being unveiled by RIM's rivals elsewhere at this conference.
There is, however, renewed hope for one of the Canadian company's flagship but flagging products, which many have already consigned to the dustbin of high technology.
RIM employees are demonstrating a hugely anticipated software upgrade for the company's maligned PlayBook tablet computer, which has been praised for its engineering but criticized for software flaws even as it competed in the same price range as Apple's wildly popular iPad.
For some, these are signs that there is still reason to be optimistic for RIM's tablet, which many had written off. Kaan Yigit, founder of the Toronto-based Solutions Research Group firm, found himself a little jealous this week as an older gentleman pulled out the 7-inch PlayBook at a Starbucks and began playing games. "I was drooling at the fact that it's so much more portable than my iPad and, as well, better built than some of the toy-like tablets I have seen at Best Buy," Mr. Yigit said, noting that from his firm's research, eight out of every 10 tablets sold in Canada have been iPads. "The market is still just emerging – too early to say it's over for anyone."
RIM, in recent months, has reiterated its dedication to the PlayBook and embarked on a campaign to make its device relevant in the still-emerging tablet space. Deep discounts at retail partners have all three models of the PlayBook selling for $299, down from the basic unit's starting price of $500 – and shaving $400 off the flagship 64-gigabyte model. At the same time, the software update, which RIM said will be available to download in February, addresses many criticisms of the PlayBook while bringing to the application-poor tablet hundreds, if not thousands, of apps currently running on Google Inc.'s Android operating system but which were previously unavailable to PlayBook.
Primarily, the updated operating system will give users standalone e-mail, calendar and contacts applications. Those applications can be synced with existing e-mail addresses, but can also draw information from social media services such as Twitter and LinkedIn. As such, the PlayBook e-mail client will function as a universal inbox for all kinds of social data.
The update also gives users access to apps originally designed for Android. App developers will first have to port the app over to the PlayBook – a process the company says can take as little as 10 minutes. The company has struggled to retain the interest of third-party app developers recently as the PlayBook failed to sell and as BlackBerry smartphone market share slumped in the United States to about 6.5 per cent.
"Features like tabbed e-mail and the deeper social integration will differentiate the PlayBook in the market," said Michael Russo, the chief technology officer for the globally successful Toronto app developer Polar Mobile. "This release is also important for developers. [It]brings an improved native [software development kit]and an even more powerful Web browser."
But not all are sold on a PlayBook revival. "I don't expect a sustained comeback with that form factor," said Kris Thompson, a technology analyst with National Bank Financial. "We continue to believe the 7-inch size is too small, especially as smartphones more commonly approach 4.5 inches."
Mr. Thompson estimates that RIM will have shipped roughly 2.1 million PlayBooks in the 2012 fiscal year and about 2.4 million in fiscal 2013. In Apple's last reported quarter, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company sold 11.1 million iPads.
The new version of the operating system will also feature a movie store, where users can rent or buy new releases. RIM has partnered with several major studios such as Warner Brothers and Lions Gate for the service. However, it appears the movie rental feature will only be available in the U.S. at launch time.
With the software update, a BlackBerry smartphone can also be used as a sort of remote control for the PlayBook – with a user able to move a mouse on the tablet using the BlackBerry's trackpad, or type e-mails on the PlayBook using a BlackBerry smartphone keyboard.
The PlayBook software update received a glowing review from the influential publication PCWorld, which said it was "compelling" and that using Android apps on the BlackBerry device was "seamless," even with 3-D games. "The BlackBerry 2.0 update looks like it's teeming with potential," the publication said. "Given the current promotional pricing on the PlayBook, the tablet may actually go from being a fancy brick to a viable tablet option."
FIRST BBX, NOW BBM
Shortly after changing the name of its new operating system from "BBX" to "BlackBerry 10" because of a trademark dispute with a small tech company, Research In Motion Ltd. went to court Wednesday to battle a similar dispute about the use of the term "BBM."
Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM, maker of the popular BlackBerry smartphone, has adopted the acronym BBM to refer to its BlackBerry Messenger service. But Toronto-based BBM Canada, a member-owned, not-for-profit group that provides ratings information to broadcasters, has taken RIM to court for an injunction and damages over use of the three-letter term.
Lawyer Peter Wells of McMillan LLP handled the case for BBM Canada at the Federal Court in Toronto. He argued that BBM Canada owns the trademark, that the thousands of Canadians contacted by the group each year for information are becoming confused, and that RIM had failed in its attempt to obtain the trademark and resorted to its financial heft to drown out BBM Canada's claim to the name.
RIM's lawyer, Trent Horne of Bennett Jones LLP, told the court that acronyms such as BBM are the weakest form of trademark. He argued that BBM Canada's customers consist of a narrow group of broadcasting and advertising agencies, rather than consumers in general, so the amount of confusion would be inconsequential and not result in financial damage to BBM Canada.
The case adjourned Wednesday without a decision.