Can RIM walk its talk?

The BlackBerry was once the only game in town, but the company is now playing catch-up in the vital consumer market.

On June 24, Jim Balsillie channelled the happy warrior while unveiling Research In Motion’s first-quarter earnings. Via conference call, RIM’s co-CEO announced a record number of BlackBerrys shipped, a 24% revenue increase over the year previous, and a profit that beat the Street.

He hinted at more reason for optimism in the offing. Since last year, rumours have swirled about big plays RIM’s been working on, which always seem just over the horizon: a new operating system, at last; a new line of touchscreen phones, finally; and a tablet computer to challenge Apple’s iPad … maybe?

Balsillie was degrees of coy on all fronts, though he promised the company’s biggest ever partnerships and product launches. “I just wish I could wind the clock forward a few weeks,” he told analysts. “I can’t say much more, but I couldn’t feel better.”

If Balsillie was enthusiastic, however, the markets remained unconvinced. RIM stock shed 4.6% of its value the night of the earnings call, continuing a slide that’s seen share prices tumble almost 30% so far this year. Earlier that day, Apple had swept its iPhone 4 onto store shelves, the latest generation of the must-have gadget that has almost single-handedly made BlackBerry the Poindexter of the smartphone class.

Two weeks later, comScore’s monthly report on U.S. smartphone market share showed a 4% uptick in May for Google’s Android platform, with every indication of continued growth. BlackBerry still owns more than 40% of the North American smartphone market, and though it continues to show healthy growth in emerging markets, investors worry about the declining average sale price for its products, about RIM’s failure to make a dent in the consumer marketplace, and about the growing sense that it no longer offers an enterprise user anything that one of its sexier rivals doesn’t do as well or better. “What it offered five years ago was unique,” says Veritas Investment Research vice-president Neeraj Monga. “What it offers today is me-too.”

RIM’s latest attempts to recapture the leading edge started in earnest at their Wireless Enterprise Symposium in April. The Black-Eyed Peas soundtracked a video preview of BlackBerry OS6, scheduled to ship by Sept. 30. If the video didn’t show anything that raises the stakes for RIM’s rivals, it looks like it may at least put BlackBerry’s operating system in the same universe. RIM’s acquisition last summer of Torch Mobile, makers of a promising browser based on the fast WebKit engine, suggests it will boast a top-line web capability. And as rich media becomes ever more integral to the online experience, the efficiency with which BlackBerry transcodes content to use less bandwidth could make it more attractive. Images are circulating of a new BlackBerry referred to as the Bold 9800, with a touchscreen as well as a slide-out keypad. It is likely the new product that Balsillie told analysts would let users “have [their] cake and eat it too” and “have enterprise and consumer on the same device.”

The RIM tablet, meanwhile, continues to be the subject of speculation. Balsillie hinted at its existence during the conference call, and The Wall Street Journal reported last month that it would be a BlackBerry companion device. Monga says that there’s a clear market opportunity for an enterprise-oriented tablet, not just for e-mail and the reading and editing of documents, but as a key presentation device with the advent of pico projectors. A companion enterprise device, though, won’t do much to capture the imagination of a public gripped with iPad fever. Balsillie promised that RIM had “a couple of surprises up our sleeves … this autumn.” An ever-more-competitive marketplace is waiting to be impressed.