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RIM Whiffs On Setting Smartphone Direction

Research In Motion opened its developers conference with a lot of talk about the PlayBook tablet--and hardly a word on its smartphone future.
Maybe I missed something. I am not attending Research In Motion's BlackBerry Devcon developers conference, being held in San Francisco this week. I did not attend the keynote this morning. I did, however, follow the keynote through a number of liveblogs. According to the ones I read, RIM barely made any mention of the future of its smartphone business.

What did RIM do on stage for the 90-minute keynote? It mostly talked about its PlayBook tablet.

RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis took the stage and one of the first things the company announced was the new BBX platform. BBX, which is based on both RIM's BlackBerry platform and its QNX-based PlayBook OS, will be the future platform for all RIM's smartphone and tablet products.

Let's say that again. RIM is going to dump its badly outdated BB5, BB6, and BB7 system software for a brand-new operating system that modifies the PlayBook OS further.

As far as I can tell, that is the sum total of what RIM said about the future of its smartphones during the opening keynote. It then spent 75 minutes talking about all the new tools it is offering to developers to create applications for BBX--and to tell the truth, there are a lot of new tools. There's a Natve BBX SDK, there's WebWorks, there's a new beta of PlayBook OS 2.0 to fool around with, not to mention Adobe Flash 11 and AIR 3.0 (it is a developer's conference, after all).

What RIM revealed of BBX is encouraging. It has taken the strengths of the QNX platform (stability), added the strengths of the BlackBerry platform (radio stacks, messaging software), and come up with a new "Cascades" user interface concept to tie everything together. If we're to believe the on-stage demonstrations shown during the keynote, BBX will be a fantastic gaming, productivity, and messaging platforms.

This all assumes, of course, that the developers in attendance give a rat's tail about BBX's potential. RIM did not introduce any new tablet or smartphone products during the keynote (which might have served to give developers a target at which they could aim), nor did it provide any information about when BBX itself would be ready, nor when BBX-laden products would reach the market.

RIM has consistently suggested that its next-gen platform won't reach the market until the first half of 2012, and it gave no update to that expectation today. It should have.

As it stands, the company has given no one any real reason to develop for BBX other than to make sure their apps are compatible with both BBX smartphones and BBX tablets. This isn't good enough. We need look only at the bombed PlayBook itself and its glaring lack of apps to see the lack of confidence developers have in RIM's new platform.

RIM needs badly to demonstrate to developers--which it admits are vital to its success--as well as to investors and to the public in general that it is going to finally respond to the two-pronged, Android-iOS attack that is stealing its market share. I'll give RIM credit for not blowing smoke by making ridiculous claims or promises, (which it is prone to do far too often), but the company dearly needed to tell us something, anything to give us more confidence in the RIM's future as a purveyor of smartphones.