BlackBerry 10 is finally making its debut in January after a lengthy delay, but it may be too little, too late for troubled Research in Motion Ltd.
The latest operating system is a crucial product for the Canadian company, which has seen both its stock market value and consumer perception plummet in just a few years. BlackBerrys were once the go-to phone for corporations and everyday smartphone users but have since been overshadowed by Apple Inc.'s iPhone and devices running Google Inc.'s Android operating system.
Now RIM is hoping that BlackBerry 10, and the smartphones that will run the software, will help it return to relevancy in a cutthroat market.
"It's make or break," said Peter Misek, managing director at Jefferies & Co. RIM's "survival depends on the success of" BlackBerry 10.
RIM said Monday that it would launch BlackBerry 10 on Jan. 30. The company will also unveil the first two smartphones that will run on the platform and announce when they will go on sale, which analysts are pegging for March.
RIM Chief Executive Thorsten Heins said the operating system offered "a truly unique mobile computing experience that constantly adapts to your needs."
"Our team has been working tirelessly to bring our customers innovative features combined with a best-in-class browser, a rich application ecosystem and cutting-edge multimedia capabilities," he said in a statement. "All of this will be integrated into a user experience — the BlackBerry Flow — that is unlike any smartphone on the market today."
Even if BlackBerry 10 is received well by reviewers, RIM still has to win back disgruntled customers, many of whom have criticized the company's devices for lacking a coolness factor.
BlackBerry phones accounted for just 9.5% of U.S. smartphone subscribers for the three months that ended in July, according to the latest report from research firm ComScore Inc. Meanwhile, Android-powered devices made up 52.2% of the market, followed by 33.4% for the iPhone.
After four years as a loyal BlackBerry user, Phillip Sanchez, 25, switched to an iPhone 4S last year after experiencing too many problems with his BlackBerry Bold. The phone, he said, would crash and restart on its own, had memory problems, featured a shoddy camera and had a screen that would repeatedly freeze.
The Van Nuys resident said he would only check out the BlackBerry 10 phones "out of curiosity."
"It would be too much for me to go back to BlackBerry," said Sanchez, a transaction coordinator for a mortgage company. "No, I'm done. They completely lost me."
Analysts were skeptical about BlackBerry 10's potential to revive RIM in the long run.
"Am I hopeful that this will turn RIM around? No," said Scott Thompson of FBR Capital Markets. "But I do believe it's a step in the right direction for them to have a shot at turning the company around."
When the company first announced that it was developing BlackBerry 10, it said it expected to launch the platform in the latter half of 2011. That got pushed back several times amid management problems, company layoffs and reports that the operating system needed major work before it would be ready to hit the market.
The January launch date was seen as a surprise by some analysts, who had in recent weeks begun projecting that RIM wouldn't be able to introduce the devices until the spring.
Shares of RIM, which are down 39% year to date, rose 27 cents, or 3.2%, to $8.81 on Monday.
Demand for BlackBerry smartphones continues to be sluggish in North America and Europe, which is "more than offsetting" strength in emerging markets, including Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East, Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said in a recent note to investors. RIM has also lost high-profile customers nationwide, including U.S. government agencies and consulting firms.
Although RIM has remained quiet about what exactly BlackBerry 10 will bring, a teaser video released in May showed a customer using a BlackBerry 10 smartphone to scroll through emails and crisp photos; quickly type, with the help of predictive text, on a touch screen; watch videos; and sync the phone up to a television screen.
The operating system will enable users to continually access content between applications and also increases keyboard responsiveness through a touch keyboard that uses modeling algorithms to learn where the user presses for each letter, "becoming tailored to the user's hand like a glove." BlackBerry 10 is also expected to feature much-needed camera enhancements and a better ecosystem for apps.
Misek, of Jefferies & Co., said he had tried demo BlackBerry 10 devices given to developers and found the new platform to be "compelling, new, different."
"The problem is it's not enough to be compelling, new, different," he said. "They have to provide a serious incentive for iPhone and Android users to switch. The probability of their success, or their ability to pull those subscribers, is low — but it's not impossible."