RIM plans to launch seven BlackBerry 7 phones starting this fall

Research in Motion will launch seven BlackBerry phones this year to meet its financial goals, but don’t expect these new handsets to turn the company’s luck around.

At the Canadian company’s annual shareholder meeting this week, co-CEO James Balsillie told investors that RIM plans to launch the phones, with BlackBerry OS 7, but admitted there are challenges in doing so. There have been delays in getting the new OS version ready, he said.

And his partner, co-CEO Michael Lazardis, earlier this year acknowledged that RIM in mid-stream of developing the new handsets went back to the drawing board to upgrade them with more powerful CPUs and improved displays.

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A report by the Guardian from RIM’s annual shareholder meeting doesn’t describe the new BlackBerry handsets in detail, but the flagship model will likely be RIM’s BlackBerry Bold 9900, which packs a 1.2 GHz single-core processor and the BlackBerry 7 operating system on a 2.8-inch, 640-by-480 resolution display (with QWERTY keyboard, of course).

Slapping those specs on a new phone has been difficult for RIM. The company had to delay its first BlackBerry OS 7 phones until at least August, missing the important back-to-school shopping season. BlackBerry OS 7 comes with a much-improved browser that includes a just-in-time JavaScript compiler, and HTML5 video.

Lazaridis told shareholders that the delay was necessary to meet market expectations, and spoke of an “arms race” between phone makers. One analyst, Ehud Gelblum of Morgan Stanley, had previously said that RIM needed the extra time to port BlackBerry 7 to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors.

p> Mobile technology sites have been rife with reports and photos purporting to show the new devices, including new versions of the BlackBerry Bold and Torch models. Among them is the Torch 9860, dubbed Monza, a full-touch phone lacking RIM’s hallmark hardware QWERTY keyboard.

But by launching new phones in August or later, RIM is entering a fiercely competitive smartphone season. Google is rumored to be launching a new Nexus phone with an updated version of Android called Ice Cream Sandwich. Apple is expected to release the iPhone 5 along with its iOS 5 software. Microsoft is prepping a major Windows Phone overhaul with new hardware from Nokia and other vendors. Many of these phones will have features that the upcoming BlackBerry Bold lacks, such as front-facing cameras, dual-core processors and thriving app ecosystems.

RIM seems to be conceding that it won’t launch a serious threat to the iPhone or Android in 2011. Instead, it’ll offer lots of handsets to placate wireless carriers, who, as The New York Times reports, are afraid of Apple’s and Google’s dominance. Expect RIM to get solid support from the likes of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, especially for enterprise users.

Next year, however, RIM plans to launch phones with its QNX operating system, which debuted in the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet and is made for dual-core processors. That device needed a lot of work, but the OS itself has potential, and could be the fresh start that RIM needs (provided the company can get over internal politics). For now, the company just needs to stay afloat.

The company has been losing customers in the U.S., based on recent comScore data (though increasing customers in overseas markets), its much-ballyhooed PlayBook tablet has failed to win rave reviews and so far RIM isn’t releasing sales numbers. The stock price has fallen by 50 per cent this year, and its market valuation is now just over $13 billion compared to $75 billion at its high-point in August 2008.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
Follow Jared Newman on Facebook and Twitter for even more tech news and commentary.

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