Arik Hesseldahl

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Research In Motion Readies BlackBerry “One-Two Punch” for Early 2013

The next generation of BlackBerry smartphones, running the latest version of the BlackBerry operating system boasting a sophisticated new user interface, is nearly ready and will launch on schedule in the first quarter of 2013, Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins said today.

In an interview with reporters from AllThingsD and The Wall Street Journal in New York, Heins said the BlackBerry 10 software is currently going through its final phase of “polishing” but is essentially complete. The company has taken a lot of criticism for postponing several times the launch of devices running the new OS. Heins said he’s “very confident” that the launch date won’t slip again.

The devices are all done, too. After years of producing scores of different BlackBerry devices for different carriers and regions of the world, RIM will strip its offerings down. Heins said the company is readying what he calls a “one-two punch,” that will comprise two types of phones: One with an all-touch interface nearly identical to a prototype shown at a RIM developers conference in Orlando in May; the other at first glance looks more like a traditional BlackBerry sporting the iconic Qwerty keyboard.

Within those two types there will be three product segments, essentially high-end, mid-tier and lower-tier devices aimed at different market segments and price points. Heins didn’t talk about target prices.

However, he did hint that a key feature will focus on addressing an important trend facing large companies: The Bring Your Own Device movement. That’s code for people buying their own phone with the expectation that it work with both personal and work-related email contacts and other data. The question is how well defined the boundary between them is and whether or not working one side of it encumbers the other in any way. CIOs in particular are going to have lots of questions about how this works and how much control they’re going to get of corporate devices.

Even though Heins said he’d be happier launching a finished operating system sooner rather than later, he said RIM’s engineers underestimated the time it would take to get all the different pieces of the software working together. “We could have done it in Q4, but we wouldn’t have gotten good feedback from customers,” he said.

That delay put RIM at odds with the conventional wisdom concerning the right time of year to launch a new phone. Critics had worried that RIM might miss the important back-to-school and holiday seasons. Heins said executives of wireless carriers reassured him: “I talked with CEOs of many carriers. They said most of their business in the fourth quarter is pre-paid anyway. They’re happy to promote us in Q1 because it takes some of the noise out of the system.”

RIM’s long-term relationship with corporate and government customers is one of the things it has going for it. Another is its installed base: For all the flak it takes from investors for basically missing a full product cycle and then some, Heins noted that there are still 80 million people using BlackBerry devices around the world. RIM is preparing a full-scale marketing blitz in cooperation with wireless carriers that will ramp up between now and the formal launch of the new devices early next year to hold on to them. “The carriers want us to keep that user base, and they are prepared to help us protect it,” he said.

Heins also said he senses a weakness among wireless customers who have dumped their BlackBerry phones in favor of devices running Google’s Android. The touch-centric device will be the centerpiece of an effort to try to win back their business. “First we’ll serve the loyal BlackBerry customer base,” he said. “Second, we’ve heard of some BlackBerry users going to Android and being dissatisfied. We’ll try to win them back, one by one if we have to.”

Another thing to watch for in the next round of devices: Some interesting technology courtesy of Paratek, a start-up RIM acquired in May. Its specialty is a technology that allows phones to transmit and receive on multiple frequency bands using just one antenna. This, Heins said, will help improve call and data quality, but will also help control costs by allowing RIM to manufacture fewer variations of its phones for different wireless markets around the world.

Word of the new devices and software comes amid reports that RIM is considering licensing the OS to other hardware manufacturers.

Heins declined to comment on published reports saying RIM had received an “informal approach” from IBM about the possible sale of its enterprise business. He did go on to say that the company considers its enterprise network, which includes several network operation centers around the world that securely direct traffic for customers running RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server, to be a “key strategic asset.”

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google