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RIM's BlackBerry hits a technical crossroad

Mark Milian
RIM President and Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis explains his company's technical strategy for competing in smartphones.
RIM President and Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis explains his company's technical strategy for competing in smartphones.
  • The BlackBerry maker is focused on corporate and worldwide markets
  • RIM is placing a big bet on a computing technology called "multicore"
  • Fixation on this technology may be why smartphone innovations have slowed to turtle's pace

San Francisco (CNN) -- Three things became clear by the end of Research in Motion President Mike Lazaridis' time in the spotlight at a mobile tech conference.

For one, he's quite fond of Canada.

No surprises there; his Waterloo, Ontario, company has made a number of key acquisitions in its homeland. Lazaridis also declared RIM "the largest technology company in Canada" three separate times in a speech Tuesday at the D: Dive into Mobile conference in San Francisco.

Two, the BlackBerry maker is focused on the corporate and worldwide markets. "We didn't go out and try to make BlackBerry a consumer device," he said. "It crossed over on its own." Yet for some reason RIM keeps running ads about surfer dudes and cool young people using its phones.

And three, RIM's fixation on a certain type of computer-processing technology may be the reason its smartphone innovations have slowed to a turtle's pace.

RIM has placed a great deal of focus on something called multicore processing, Lazaridis said during the closing event at the mobile conference. That refers to the idea of having separate chips work together on number crunching -- and it's a driving force for the Intel processors in many laptops.

Sharing the load between multiple cores, as it's known, is a smart way to curb battery drain. But this method isn't common yet in smartphones because the technology hasn't quite caught up to the tiny gizmos.

The PlayBook, a 7-inch touch-screen tablet RIM will release in the next few months, relies on this multicore concept. It helps the software achieve, as Lazaridis pointed out, snappy responses and optimized battery life.

Lazaridis demonstrated the gadget on stage and for a smaller crowd afterward, swiping through applications and launching ones such as Facebook. He still didn't have an answer for questions about pricing, battery life or launch dates.

RIM acquired a Canadian company, called QNX in April, which makes a multicore-compatible operating system. That QNX software powers the PlayBook and will drive future multicore smartphones from RIM, Lazaridis said.

Whether such a smartphones will be called BlackBerry is unknown. Lazaridis identified what he sees as three distinct product categories: communications devices like the BlackBerry, mobile computing platforms like the PlayBook and smartphones.

It's a bit surprising that RIM's co-CEO doesn't consider the BlackBerry in this instance to be a smartphone. (Earlier in the fireside chat, he said: "We invented the smartphone.")

How could that be? Well, the BlackBerry has lost its edge in that realm of fast-improving phones, including Android, iPhone and now Windows Phone 7.

But it's still great for tapping out long e-mails, and the batteries last a long time. Despite attempts at touch-screen, multimedia-centric phones with the BlackBerry Storm and Torch, RIM has been lambasted by critics for making slow and clunky products.

Meanwhile, better-reviewed smartphones rely on other types of technology. Apple developed a 1-gigahertz processor called the A4 that powers the iPhone 4 and iPad. The Nexus S from Google and Samsung Electronics uses a snappy, 1-gigahertz chip called Hummingbird. The BlackBerry Torch has a sluggish 624 megahertz at its heart.

"We chose to bypass the megahertz arms race," Lazaridis said. "What we decided was we needed to get to multicore processing because what we realized was these devices are using a lot of power."

So the plan is eventually to tailor a version of the tablet system for a smartphone that can meet RIM's rigid technical standards. That's the opposite of what Apple did and what Google is doing.

"Our competitors have taken a smartphone operating system, and they're trying to upgrade it into a tablet operating system," Lazaridis said.

While RIM will be relatively early and seemingly competitive in the tablet space next year, the company still has a long way to go before catching up with smartphones.


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