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Struggling RIM aims for leading role in mobile industry

By Troy Wolverton, San Jose Mercury News –

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Research In Motion Ltd. has been struggling lately, but the company’s new BlackBerry software gives it the chance to become the leader in mobile computing, company CEO Thorsten Heins said at a developer conference here.

That software, dubbed BlackBerry 10, debuted a year ago on the company’s PlayBook tablet. But RIM is reworking it for a new series of BlackBerry smartphones that the company plans to release early next year.

Heins and his fellow RIM executives told developers that the updated software, which had been delayed, is now on track. The company is already taking steps to attract developers to the platform and is gearing up to promote the new phones and software to consumers.

“We took the hard decision to go the hard route” to completely rewrite the BlackBerry software for phones, said Heins, who with his fellow executives demonstrated the new software to developers. “I’m not thinking about BlackBerry being No. 1 in smartphones. I have a longer view on this: It is to be No. 1 in mobile computing with smartphones and tablets.”

Right now, the company is struggling just to remain a viable player in the market. Even as smartphone sales have exploded, RIM’s sales have fallen and its market share has plunged amid intense competition from Apple’s iPhone and devices running Google’s Android software.

RIM’s revamped software is a whole new take on the BlackBerry experience. Unlike the current software, BlackBerry 10 was designed to work with touch-screen devices similar to Apple’s iPhone. The new software allows users to peek at their inbox from the home screen or any application by swiping from left to right across the screen. Users can unlock BlackBerry 10 devices without touching a button by swiping upward on the screen. And they can view running applications in small tiles or frames that show up-to-date information, such as a person’s next meeting or a new social networking status message.

RIM is doing what it can to excite developers to make apps for the new software, and has developed tools to make app making easier. It has held some 26 “BlackBerry Jam” conferences with developers around the world since May, including this week’s session in San Jose. RIM is also offering a guarantee to certain developers that they will make at least $10,000 on apps they develop for BlackBerry 10; if they don’t reach that amount by selling their apps, RIM will make up the difference. And the company plans to give limited edition versions of its upcoming BlackBerry 10 phones to developers.

The company’s efforts impressed some of those attending the conference. BlackBerry developer Jeremy Wall said he had been among those losing interest in making apps for RIM phones. But the new developer tools helped change his mind.

“I realized how much easier it was to develop” for the new software as compared with the old, said Wall, who works for Swift Raven Software.

Jeff Long, who works in the information technology department at Cristal Global, said BlackBerry 10 will help him as he tries to convince his company to stick with RIM devices and software. In recent years, his company — like many others — has had to embrace the idea of employees connecting iPhones and other BlackBerry competitors to its network. But ensuring that the data on those gadgets is secure has been much more difficult than it was on BlackBerry devices, Long said.

“I like what’s going on with BlackBerry 10,” Long said. “I’m looking forward to that coming out.”

Despite such enthusiasm, RIM still faces plenty of challenges. San Jose’s Civic Auditorium was half empty during Heins’ keynote speech, and many of those attending were RIM employees or members of the media. And RIM hasn’t yet announced a release date for the BlackBerry 10 phones or said which wireless companies will carry them, only that they will ship in the first quarter next year in countries on six continents.

Until then, the company risks falling further behind in the smartphone market. Apple just released its iPhone 5. New Android phones from Samsung, Motorola and others are expected this fall, as are devices running Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 8 software, which is vying with RIM to challenge Android and Apple’s iOS.

If RIM can navigate the difficult transition ahead, it has a chance, said Chris Jones, an analyst with market research firm Canalys. “But it still has a long way to go,” he said.

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