Research In Motion has unveiled a new mobile operating system that will power its next-generation BlackBerry smartphones and PlayBook tablets to better compete with Internet-friendly Apple and Android devices.
The announcement Tuesday came just days after the BlackBerry maker had the worst service outage in its history and as it tries to reposition its wireless devices as market leaders.
"Today, I'm pleased to announce our next-generation platform, BBX," co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said via webcast from RIM's software developer conference in San Francisco.
The new mobile operating system is based on the software already running the PlayBook tablet but has been expanded, Lazaridis said. He was joined on stage by developers to show the new operating system at work on a PlayBook tablet.
Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) is expected to launch a new generation of BlackBerry smartphones that run on the BBX system early next year. They are expected to be even more like mobile computers.
With the more powerful BBX operating system, users will be able to seamlessly perform multiple tasks at the same time, such as watching a video in high-definition and doing emails and other tasks, Lazaridis said.
RIM said BBX will incorporate the reliability and security features of QNX — which RIM snagged in 2010 by purchasing QNX Software Systems. It will also enable software developers to create more advanced, dynamic apps for the devices.
To appeal to more developers, Lazaridis said the BBX operating system will give RIM's future smartphones and tablets the ability to run Android software applications, such as games, business and medical apps.
The Android operating system, developed by Google Inc. (Nasdaq:GOOG), is used on a variety of, smartphones and tablets made by numerous manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC and LG — making it an attractive technology environment.
"We're sensitive to what our developers want. We're trying to understand where they want us to go," said Lazaridis. "BBX positions you, the developer, at the forefront."
Some analysts have complained that it was difficult for developers to write software applications for RIM.
Research In Motion launched its BlackBerry App World store in 2009 and said it achieved more than one billion apps downloaded in July. By comparison, Apple had announced it achieved the same milestone after nine months.
"At DevCon today, we're giving developers the tools they need to build richer applications and we're providing direction on how to best develop their smartphone and tablet apps as the BlackBerry and QNX platforms converge into our next-generation BBX platform," Lazaridis said.
Lazaridis reiterated that Research In Motion won't ditch its PlayBook tablet, which has been languishing on store shelves and has sold fewer than one million units since its debut last April.
"We're absolutely committed to the BlackBerry PlayBook," he said.
RIM also has lost market share in the competitive North American arena to Apple and Android and has faced criticism for not launching new smartphones quickly enough in recent years that provided consumers with an easy-to-use Internet experience.
But RIM has sold 165 million BlackBerrys through August. Apple had sold 129 million iPhones as of June, but its device has been on the market for a much shorter amount of time.
The Waterloo, Ont., company once claimed a market value of about $70 billion and has, from time to time, been Canada's most valuable company.
RIM's shares have been held by millions of Canadians in their pensions, mutual funds or other investments and the company was once of the most widely held in the country. It now has a market value of about $12 billion or so and shareholders have complained about its lagging stock price and corporate leadership.
Activist shareholder Jaguar Financial said Tuesday it had arranged a meeting with two of RIM's independent directors to discuss the issues of governance, among other issues but it was cancelled by RIM.
"Unfortunately, today Jaguar received a call from RIM's counsel informing Jaguar that the planned meeting with the two independent directors would not proceed," said Vic Alboini, the Toronto-based company's chairman and CEO.
Jaguar has said it wants RIM to either be sold, split up or have its leadership changed. Both Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie serve as co-chairmen and chief executives.
"As tiny as this incident may appear, we believe it speaks volumes about the sad state of governance at RIM. Our call for a strong and respected independent chairman and new transformational CEO rings loud and clear," Alboini said in a statement.
RIM said after consulting with a lawyer it doesn't believe that Jaguar's interests are "aligned" with the company's long-term shareholders and declined to meet.
What may be more pressing for RIM is how consumers like its devices with the new BBX operating system.
Peter Misek, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. in New York, said much of RIM's future depends on releasing the new generation of BlackBerrys.
The conference comes after a global outage of BlackBerry text, email and Internet services last week that hit Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North and South America.
To make amends for the outage, RIM has offered its 70 million users a selection of free apps totalling $100 and its business customers free tech support for a month.
This is not the first time the company has stumbled with its future at stake. RIM overcame doubts when it went public 14 years ago and then again during the tech crash 11 years ago. At one point, a patent dispute threatened to shut down BlackBerry service in the U.S. until the company settled in 2006.
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