Moments before Web 2.0 Summit co-chair John Battelle invited Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie on stage, he asked attendees how many had BlackBerry mobile phones and somewhere between 10% to 20% of the audience members raised a hand. Then he asked how many used to have BlackBerry mobile phones and noted that the number of hands was comparable.
The perception is that RIM's grasp on its market is slipping as adoption of Apple's iPhone and Android phones surges. That may not jibe with reality: Earlier on Tuesday, Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker presented a slide showing that RIM's smartphone market share had grown from 7% in Q1, 2006, to 15% in Q3, 2010.
But RIM is at a transitional moment and concerns about the future health of its platform deserve some consideration.
Asked about his view of Apple, Balsillie did not mince words: "We think many customers are getting tired of being told what to think by Apple," he said.
"We believe you can bring mobile to the Web," he said. "You don't need to go through some control point SDK. You don't need an app for the Web."
Balsillie made it clear that he's all for native apps on mobile devices. But he stressed that proprietary tools are not necessary to make content mobile.
"It's really not about a set of proprietary tools," he said. "We completely disagree with that point of view."
He predicted that proprietary mobile computing would be a passing phase like the DRM era for music.
Balsillie talked up the performance of his company's forthcoming PlayBook, noting how well it performs in a video that has been posted to YouTube. "It's like three to four times faster than an iPad," he said. Yet asked whether he had one to show, he demurred.
Balsillie also balked when asked to comment on a competitor that isn't Apple. During a few minutes of audience questioning, David Levin, CEO of United Business Media, which owns TechWeb, asked whether it is over for Nokia (Levin was previously CEO of Symbian).
Balsillie initially declined to comment. Prodded by Battelle, he allowed that big shifts, like the shift from feature phones to smart phones, can be tough.
Asked to define RIM, Balsillie flashed his company's enterprise credentials. While recognizing that IT has been consumerized, he said you still can't dismiss enterprise requirements. "We sell performance," he said. "We sell Web fidelity and Web tools. We sell CIO, professional-grade requirements."
RIM, he said, is about "innovative performance and constructive alignment."
And someday soon, RIM will sell the PlayBook. Just not today.