RIM nears end of two-year launch of BlackBerry 10

Andrew MacLeod, RIM's managing director for Canada, says the company will still have some surprises up its sleeves when it launches the BlackBerry 10 smartphone on Jan. 30.
Andrew MacLeod, RIM's managing director for Canada, says the company will still have some surprises up its sleeves when it launches the BlackBerry 10 smartphone on Jan. 30.
Philip Walker/Record staff

WATERLOO — The BlackBerry 10 smartphone may be the most leaked handset in the history of the mobile communications industry.

More than 7,000 prototypes or “dev alpha” devices, as Research In Motion calls them, have been distributed to software developers around the world since last spring so developers could get an early start building apps for the new handsets.

Videos of RIM engineers and product managers showing off features of the sleek, new rectangular phones are freely available on the company’s website and other tech sites on the internet.

It would seem there is little left to announce on the big launch day Jan. 30 except where and when customers can buy the new phones.

But Andrew MacLeod, RIM’s managing director for Canada, says the company will still have some surprises up its sleeve on the actual launch day.

“Obviously, we’ve shared a great deal with the market,” MacLeod said in an interview in RIM building 20 in the David Johnston Research and Technology Park. “But certainly it’s important to always keep some energy and excitement to share with the world. We do anticipate doing that” on Jan. 30, he says.

At 10 a.m. on that day, RIM will officially unveil the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 smartphone in six cities around the globe: Toronto, New York, London, Paris, Johannesburg and Dubai.

The release will be simulcast in all six cities, meaning the local launch time will actually be 7 p.m. in Dubai and 5 p.m. in Johannesburg.

RIM’s chief executive officer Thorsten Heins is expected to be in New York, which will serve as the command centre for the global rollout.

To set the stage for the launch, the Record is running a series called 10 things you should know about BlackBerry 10. The series starts today and continues until Jan. 30.

Unquestionably, Jan. 30 is an important day in RIM’s history, one of the biggest if not the biggest in the company’s 29-year existence.

Analysts, critics and fans alike agree the BlackBerry 10 is a make-or-break device for RIM, one that the Waterloo-based company desperately needs to succeed to shore up its shrinking market share and flagging stock price.

RIM shares have rallied in recent weeks in anticipation of the launch but are still down sharply from the highs of about $140 per share in 2008.

On Jan. 30, RIM will pull back the curtain on two BlackBerry 10 phones, MacLeod says. One will be a touch-screen device and the second a handset with a physical keyboard.

Details on when customers can purchase the new phones in various parts of the world will also be shared. The touch-screen device will hit retail stores first with the keyboard handset to follow soon after, MacLeod says.

In all, RIM plans six BlackBerry 10 phones, with touch-screen and physical-keyboard devices available in each of the high-end, mid-range and entry-level segments.

Carriers have been taking preorders of the BlackBerry 10 phone and the response has been brisk, says MacLeod, whose current duties include managing relationships with carriers and distributors in Canada.

He refers to a recent media report on BB10 preorders at Rogers Communications. “They (Rogers officials) have been very, very impressed with the demand they’ve been seeing for BlackBerry 10,” he says. “That’s a very positive indication.”

The blast-off of BB10 is actually the culmination of a two-year sprint to get the new phones built as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.

Sometime in 2010, RIM decided that the aging 11-year-old operating system used to power the original suite of BlackBerry smartphones was not up to the task of delivering the rich array of applications and features that were commonplace on iPhone and Android phones.

Standing in the wings was QNX Software Systems, an Ottawa-based company that RIM acquired in 2010 with an eye to launching a tablet device called the PlayBook.

Its mission-critical software platform, used in the telematics systems of automobiles, nuclear plants and military vehicles, when married with BlackBerry engineering savvy, was viewed as just the ticket to vault RIM back into the uber-competitive smartphone race.

When Mike Lazaridis, RIM’s co-founder and former co-chief executive officer stood on a stage in San Francisco with QNX founder Dan Dodge in October 2011, the battle was joined. RIM was going to build a smartphone platform to carry it through the next 10 years, they declared.

But forging a new mobile software platform and operating system are not accomplished overnight.

The multi-year task could not be completed in time to save the jobs of Lazaridis and co-chief executive officer Jim Balsillie, who had built the company into a force to be reckoned with just a few years earlier. They departed in early 2012, leaving it to successor Heins to hold the ship together as the company navigated the stormy waters to Jan. 30.

By most accounts, Heins has done a superb job, resisting calls to release the new phones before they are ready, a mistake RIM has made too many times in the past.

The sting of the more than 7,000 layoffs at RIM over the past two years, including 5,000 in the current fiscal year, has been softened by the thrill of the new product launch, says MacLeod. “The mood around here is amazing. People are just absolutely pumped.”

Adrenalin levels are being stoked by the responses of people outside the company who’ve had a close-up look at alpha versions of the new phone. They’re impressed by its peek and flow interface, super-fast browser and other cool features, MacLeod says.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from all of our different partners, whether it’s developers, whether it’s the carriers, whether it’s people who review the product for a living, the feedback we’re getting from all these sources has been incredible.”

Few are more qualified than MacLeod to gauge the various mood levels at the BlackBerry maker.

The 42-year-old Toronto native joined the company in 2001 as part of its alliances group, charged with building relationships and rapport with the bigger players in the telecom market. The task wasn’t easy. RIM was a much smaller company then.

But the smooth and articulate MacLeod was equal to the challenge and soon began moving into other roles, including software licensing and management of global carriers. Over the years, he has travelled the world, helping to open new markets in Africa, Europe and Asia.

He’s felt the exhilarating highs and the devastating lows of RIM’s rollercoaster ride through the fickle smartphone market. “I’ve seen a lot,” he says with a heavy sigh. “It’s truly been an incredible journey and I wouldn’t trade any of it.”

Among the lows was the loss of so many employees over the past few years as the reeling company took a meat cleaver to its overgrown workforce in reaction to declining sales and shrinking profits.

Seeing friends and colleagues handed pink slips was “absolutely difficult. It takes its toll on everyone,” says MacLeod.

Still, it’s part of the business cycle, he says. Companies go through phases of growth and phases of contraction, especially when they’re building the next generation of a new product, he notes. “It happens in every industry. In technology it seems to happen a little quicker.”

While one of his roles is to act as the face of the company in front of the media, MacLeod stresses that not enough credit goes to the legions of RIM employees who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to prepare for the BB10 unveiling.

“There’s been thousands and thousands of people working incredibly long hours, giving up holidays, working over Christmas, working weekends, sabotaging time with their families,” he says. “They’ve all been so incredibly dedicated toward making this an incredible new platform launch.”