BlackBerry World is One of Worry for Retailers

Jonathan Blum

ORLANDO, Fla. (MainStreet) -- When Sanjay Karwa arrived at BlackBerry World 2012 here, he had fond hopes. But these days, BlackBerrys have a way of breaking hearts.

Karwa owns and operates Planet M, a network of more than 140 retail stores across India. Life is good for mobile phone stores there. Nearly 1 billion cellphone users crowd India. And Karwa does more $40 million in annual sales peddling mobile devices from most makers, including Research In Motion(:RIMM).

After the 18-some-odd hour flight from Mumbai to Florida, he was hopeful RIM's annual confab would deliver the mobile goods his business needs.

"BlackBerry used to be a big thing in India, but then the iPhone comes along and steals the show," Karwa told us as he was eating a Haagen-Dazs Bar on a stick in a crowded hallway here. "RIM accounts only for about 10% of my business, and growth on BlackBerry sales has been stagnant."

So when newly minted RIM CEO Thorsten Heins touted the benefits of its new operating system, BlackBerry 10, Karwa listened closely -- one CEO to another.

"I absolutely expect us to regain market share," emphasized Heins, as he went through the features and benefits of the operating system, which took three years to develop. BlackBerry 10 would be RIM's best -- and let's be honest here, probably last -- bet in the mobile computing market of tomorrow. Heins was pitching hard his interface concept called "flows," which has gesture-based navigation and typing that moves away from the traditional qwerty keyboard.

But Karwa -- and many others in the room -- got the feeling Research In Motion was no longer moving forward.

BlackBerry 10 posts a zero

Karwa, like us, waited throughout the keynote presentation to hear a launch date for BlackBerry 10. It did not come. He, like us, wondered if there would be an opportunity to review the line of new hardware devices. There would be none. The BlackBerry 10 announcement turned out to be just that: an announcement, a staged event to feed the BlackBerry partisans an early look at a revamped app framework. The idea is to get developers developing to feed the App World ecosystem. The "alpha" hardware Heins demonstrated was not a final spec, and the new line of hardware devices Karwa came to Orlando to see were yet to be announced.

Though Karwa watched as Heins channeled Apple's(:AAPL) Steve Jobs, there was no Steve-style "one more thing" bombshell at the end of the program.

The demonstration ended. The lights just came on. And Karwa finished his ice cream.

Then he took a long look around at the 5,000 people attending BlackBerry World. He weighed Heins' logic: The company wants to hold off on a product launch, keeping quality in mind. The operating system has to be "perfect" before launch, perhaps taking a page from Jobs' book.

But Karwa senses Apple's rules are not working for RIM.

"How can RIM expect to compete when they're taking this long to introduce new products and devices?" Karwa asked. "The product cycle cannot continue to take this long."

RIM's tight global runway

Karwa broke down RIM's problems in India: Devices are released practically every week there. So when BlackBerry takes three or more years to announce something without a formal release date, retailers such as Karwa gets nervous. The profit margins for resellers such as his on the hugely popular Apple devices are razor thin. And many in direct mobile sales are dying to find a product line that can boost revenues.

But Karwa was clearly skeptical RIM can deliver that next profitable uber-product.

There were simply too many questions at this event. And too many reasons for him not to consider seeking other devices from makers including Samsung and Motorola(:MOT).

"The BlackBerry 10 sounds like a great thing," he said. "But I need something that I can see, something that I can touch and feel with my hands."

Additional reporting was provided by Anthony Mowl.