Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) said the BlackBerry 10, the new smartphone lineup intended to revive its fortunes, is about to begin testing at more than 120 U.S. companies, including 64 members of the Fortune 500.
So-called beta testing of the new BlackBerry 10 touch- screen model and related enterprise software will start today, said Richard Piasentin, managing director of RIM’s U.S. business. RIM is picking up the costs of the trials, which are focused on the touch-screen model, a design that’s less familiar to many corporate customers than the traditional Qwerty keyboard version, he said.
“We’re keenly targeting the launch of our touch-screen device and we want to bring that experience to our clients,” Piasentin said in an interview. While the tests stop short of being actual orders, “these clients have agreed to implement the full solution into their infrastructure,” which shows their level of commitment, he said.
RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, is widening its pilot projects to build enthusiasm for the phones, which debut to the public Jan. 30 and go on sale in February on multiple continents. A successful start is critical to regaining some of the market share the BlackBerry lost in recent years to Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iOS and Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software.
Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and the National Transportation Safety Board are two of the latest organizations that are ceasing to use BlackBerrys.
RIM also sent out invitations today to the Jan. 30 event, which will be held at Pier 36 in New York. The company plans to use the forum to provide details on pricing and global availability of the phones.
RIM shares were little changed today in New York trading, closing at $13.93.
In the run-up to the BlackBerry 10’s release, RIM is trying to win back defectors. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said last week that it will test the new software and devices, even after announcing plans in mid-October to spend $2.1 million on more than 17,000 Apple iPhones.
The trial participants represent industries such as financial services, insurance, health care and media, Piasentin said. Though all 120 companies are based in the U.S., many are global, and so the testing will be done across their international operations, Piasentin said. He declined to name any of the businesses until they have agreed to discuss the trials publicly.
One firm that has come forward is Integris Health Inc., an Oklahoma City-based health-care provider that said it’s looking forward to testing the BlackBerry 10 and is counting on the security the software offers.
Relying on its reputation for data security in government and business circles, RIM is also wooing customers with features such as BlackBerry Balance, which allows users to operate two versions of their device for work and personal life that separately quarantine e-mail, applications and other data.
The wave of testing comes as RIM prepares to report fiscal third-quarter results on Dec. 20. Sales probably fell 48 percent to $2.67 billion, based on the average estimate of analysts in a Bloomberg survey. Excluding some items, its loss is projected to be 35 cents a share.
That prognosis has done little to crimp a share rally in the stock as analysts upgrade the shares and adjust their price targets.
RIM shares have more than doubled since Sept. 24, just before the company’s last earnings report. Still, the stock remains 90 percent below its closing peak of $147.55 in June 2008, when RIM commanded closer to half the smartphone market.
Even after the rally, RIM’s outlook remains dim, Phillip Huang, an analyst at UBS AG, said today in a research note. The stock gains are reminiscent of what happened to Palm Inc., he said. Shares of that company jumped from $3 to about $18 in 2009, fueled by optimism for its new WebOS software and related phones. After the platform fizzled, the stock fell back below $4. Hewlett-Packard Co. ultimately bought Palm and discontinued the products.
“We can’t recommend shares on a low probability of success for BB10,” Huang, who has a neutral rating on RIM shares, said in the report. “The range of outcomes is wide.”
RIM is poised to finish 2012 with a 4.7 percent share of global smartphone platforms, with Apple and Android accounting for 68 percent and 19 percent respectively, according to market research firm IDC.
Piasentin, who joined RIM in 2009 from Nortel Networks Corp. (NRTLQ), said the number of companies now testing BlackBerry 10 shows that RIM is still relevant in the U.S., a market where have sales have fallen more sharply than overseas.
“I don’t think these companies would have agreed to participate in this program if they didn’t see the value that we have to bring to their enterprises to be more successful and effective,” Piasentin said.
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