BlackBerry 10 smartphones, slated to come in early 2013, will rely heavily on improved BlackBerry Messenger social networking tools, including new video chat capabilities, Research in Motion CEO Thorsten Heins told shareholders during a sometimes acrimonious annual meeting on Tuesday.
"BlackBerry Messenger is a very strong platform in Asia, Africa and Europe, and we're upgrading it with video chat in BlackBerry 10," Heins said during a question-and-answer session at the shareholder meeting, which was webcast.
By some measures and in some geographies, Heins claimed, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is the "number one social network."
Heins told shareholders that there are 78 million BlackBerry users worldwide, including 56 million that use the BBM platform.
Heins also said that BBM could be a central piece of efforts to license BlackBerry 10 to third parties.
"We are planning and are evaluating licensing BlackBerry 10 to expand the subscriber base," Heins said. "We will leverage and continue to grow that [78 million] base and will focus on BBM as our platform and on BlackBerry integrated consumer services."
Heins told a shareholder who complained about BlackBerry 10 delays and the lack of product specifics that RIM has intentionally kept many details "contained" to keep a competitive edge. "It's a competitive industry, and we have to be careful what we tell the public and when," Heins said.
Heins did contend that RIM "very good plan going forward [for the BlackBerry 10]. It is so unique and so special."
The annual meeting saw the installation of 10 RIM board members, including Heins, for another year, along with a long recitation of the firm's financial problems, layoffs and smartphone shipment delays.
Heins has addressed those issues repeatedly in recent days, starting with answers to questions during RIM's first-quarter earnings call with financial analysts a week ago.
Shareholders cheered and applauded when one man said the current board members should have resigned after sitting atop RIM problems for years. "Whey did the board let it get it out of hand so badly and so much before they did something about it? What this company needs is an upheaval," the man said to applause from shareholders at the meeting.
Heins, installed as CEO and a board member in January, came under criticism for his compensation package and lack of CEO experience, said he recognized the board was not elected unanimously this year.
"We recognize it's a difficult period for shareholders, and I would like to assure everyone here that RIM's board and executive team are committed to the activities I've laid out here and to create value for shareholders," Heins said.
Heins won some audience support at one point when he pledged to check into RIM's inventory system following a shareholder complaint that after buying a RIM PlayBook tablet in January he couldn't get an accessory package including a rapid charger and traveling case. The package, he said, wasn't available online for months.
Heins also divulged that 60% of the software in the PlayBook tablet is also used in BlackBerry 10, though he didn't offer details.
The PlayBook, first introduced in 2011, hasn't found much success in a crowded tablet field, according to analysts. The Playbook runs the same QNX operating system that's at the base of the BlackBerry 10, according to RIM.
Heins told one shareholder that RIM still has a "lock on the enterprise market" and is holding onto users and BlackBerry Enterprise Server installations at 90% of Fortune 500 companies.
To boost enterprise interest in its technology, RIM will offer more services through its BlackBerry Fusion and Balance initiatives, Heins said.
Fusion offers IT shops management support for various smartphone OS's, including iOS and Android, while the Balance program is designed to let BlackBerry users separate personal functions on the device from corporate functions. In the latter case, corporate data alone can be wiped from a lost device.
Heins said RIM is committed to shipping a premium-quality touchscreen BlackBerry 10 smartphone in 2013. That will be followed by a device with RIM's iconic physical Qwerty keyboard. Peter Devenyi, senior vice president of enterprise software at RIM, made similar promises in an interview last week.
To improve its standing with consumers, Heins said RIM has "made it really easy to attract ... content and service providers" through the BlackBerry 10 programming interfaces.
Answering a question from another shareholder, Heins said that the planned layoff of amost one-third of RIM's workforce, or 5,000 employees, will not slow BlackBerry 10 development. Nor would the development effort have been helped with an investment from RIM's $2.2 billion cash on hand, he said.
"The speed of BlackBerry 10 development is not a money issue or a headcount issue," Heins said.
The problem has been integrating all the disparate blocks of software, developed by independent software development teams, into the device. There are about 75 blocks of software in BlackBerry 10, of which about two major blocks remain to be integrated, Heins said.
The newest member of the RIM board is Timothy Dattels, a senior partner at TPG Capital, and a former managing director of Goldman Sachs.
The other eight directors approved by shareholders on Tuesday are: David Kerr, a director since 2007; Claudia Kotchka, first elected last July; RIM co-founder and foirmer CEO Mike Lazaridis, a director since 1984; Roger Martin, first elected in 2007; John Richardson, a director since 2003; Barbara Stymiest, who joined the board in 2007; Prem Watsa, elected in January; John Wetmore, a director since 2007; and Heins, elected in January.
RIM has posted the backgrounds and biographies of all the directors here.