Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time at RIM’s BlackBerry DevCon Europe event, where Thorsten Heins, the newly installed CEO, took to the stage to tell its ecosystem partners that “we are ready to compete.”

While obviously the audience was filled with BlackBerry converts, for a company that has been surrounded by negative publicity for so long, the atmosphere was incredibly buoyant. RIM talked up the fact that its customers are downloading apps, and are not adverse to spending cash – music to the ears of the assembled developer base.

In addition, its integration of BBM with its app platform has also created some interesting opportunities for developers, with some attendees present identifying real-world gains from offering products integrated with a mobile-focused and app-friendly social networking platform.

With support for Android apps in the pipeline, and the company also supporting HTML5 and Flash, RIM is clearly committed to working with its partners in whatever way they feel most appropriate, rather than attempting to mandate any kind of development path which fits its own end.

The big issue the company faces, however, was one which was hardly touched upon during the keynotes: the need for new BlackBerry smartphones. The event was dominated by talk of the PlayBook, and the planned BlackBerry 10 platform, but this clearly leaves a whole in RIM’s current product portfolio where the attractive, flagship handsets should be.

The numbers show the significance of smartphones in RIM’s portfolio. In the first three quarters of the company’s current year, RIM shipped 37.9 million BlackBerry handsets, compared with 850,000 PlayBooks. Smartphones will deliver the kind of volumes for the company that tablets never will, and it is this kind of volume that helps create momentum in the market.

Obviously, transitioning to a new platform is no easy task, as Nokia’s travails in the shift to Windows Phone have showed. Existing products instantly begin to look dated, as attention shifts to the latest and greatest around the (in RIM’s case, especially long) corner. BlackBerry 7 was also a little late coming to market, and its arrival was accompanied by RIM’s high-profile service outage, which did little to improve the company’s image.

With the first BlackBerry 10 smartphone set to reach the market in the second half of the year, and factoring in time for volumes to build and for the platform to work its way into the company’s mid range, RIM is facing a prolonged period where it is primarily offering devices based on what has been identified as a legacy platform. With new versions of Android and iOS available, and the Nokia-driven momentum for Windows Phone set to benefit adoption of this platform, RIM’s proposition could easily look lacklustre in the interim.

In some ways, the focus on the PlayBook at the event looked to be misguided. After all, the device has sold in unimpressive numbers, to the point of inventory write-downs and price cuts.

But the focus was very much on the PlayBook platform, rather than the hardware – and it is this which will form the basis of the BlackBerry 10 handset operating system. RIM is paving the way to ensure that when BlackBerry 10 devices reach the market, they will be supported by a fully-formed application catalogue, whether developed natively for the platform, for Android, using HTML5 or Flash.

In September 2011, Mike Lazaridis, one of Heins’ predecessors in the CEO chair, admitted the need for a fully-rounded content, software and hardware proposition to ensure success. “We have learned the importance of ensuring an established vibrant ecosystem is available prior to commercial launch, and our QNX smartphones application environment development and final industrial design will be released into the market based on this experience,” he said in a conference call.

Ultimately, the company’s developer story, and its long-term strategy, look promising. But, in the meantime, its device volumes are on the slide, as consumers vote with their feet.

The new smartphones can’t come soon enough.

Steve Costello

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members