Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) plans to showcase the first two of its BlackBerry 10 smartphones on Jan. 30 and then start selling the devices in February, moving forward with a critical step in its comeback bid.
“We want to do it as quickly as possible,” Chief Operating Officer Kristian Tear said in an interview following RIM’s announcement of the Jan. 30 date earlier in the day. Though the first phones won’t go on sale simultaneously worldwide, RIM is aiming for a release on multiple continents within 30 days of the unveiling, Tear said.
The rollout will finally get the BlackBerry 10 into consumers’ hands after multiple product delays put the phones a year behind schedule. RIM needs a hit to help it reverse market- share losses over the past two years to Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPhone and devices running Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software.
While customers will still have to wait 11 weeks until they know exactly when the BlackBerry 10 will go on sale, today’s announcement helps assure them that the product is coming, said Steven Li, an analyst at Raymond James in Toronto. Until now, RIM has only officially said that the BlackBerry 10 will be released in the first quarter of 2013.
“They’ve got to keep the buzz going,” said Li, who rates RIM the equivalent of a hold. “They don’t have a new product for the holidays, so this was the right thing to do.”
RIM rose 3.2 percent to $8.81 at the close in New York. After hitting a nine-year low on Sept. 24, the stock has gained almost 40 percent on speculation that the BlackBerry 10 will reinvigorate sales. Even so, the shares remain more than 90 percent below their 2008 peak.
The stock rallied on Oct. 31 after the company said that more than 50 carriers have begun lab-testing the phones, a process that typically takes 60 to 90 days. On Nov. 8, RIM said BlackBerry 10 had won security certification from the U.S. government, the first time that the company’s handsets have been certified for FIPS, or Federal Information Processing Standards, before their commercial debut.
That will be key to cementing RIM’s reputation as the most secure smartphone on the market, said Michael Brown, RIM’s vice president for security product management. That will help maintain the support of government agencies, a key market, he said.
Discussions between RIM and its biggest carrier partners, such as AT&T Inc. (T) and Verizon Wireless in the U.S. and Orange SA and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD) in Europe, will hinge on what other models are part of the mobile-phone operators’ marketing plans, Howe said.
“It’s a negotiation,” Howe said.
Emerging markets in Latin America, Africa and Asia have helped the company increase its customer base in recent months, even as North American users switch to other phones. Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben said in July that the introduction of BlackBerry 10 devices would be widespread. He didn’t name countries and didn’t say whether the U.S. would be included initially.
“Will it be three continents or five, five countries or 10?” he said. “I don’t know the specifics yet, but it will be multiple countries on multiple continents.”
Choosing to initially release the device outside the U.S. to generate more buzz might be a worthwhile strategy, Howe said.
“The hypothesis that they might start outside the U.S. is possible, as it would give them some pretty good sales numbers early,” he said. “They could launch with several million units sold within weeks.”
Howe said he likes what he’s seen of the BlackBerry 10 operating system. The technology is designed to offer better multitasking by letting users “peek” at one program with their finger while running another.
“It’s very true to their heritage and is a very good platform for getting work done,” he said.
RIM ranks far behind the iPhone and Android devices in the smartphone market, putting it in a race with Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) for third place.
Microsoft unveiled its latest platform, Windows Phone 8, last month, giving it a head start. Still, it’s too early to say if Windows will push the BlackBerry to the sidelines. RIM has an opportunity to catch up, Howe said.
“They want to be counted, and Microsoft has left them an opening to do that,” he said.
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