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BlackBerry-maker RIM faces tough challenge to impress at its annual showcase

TORONTO - The heat is on BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) as the company heads into its annual industry showing of new products and services in what could be the most competitive year yet for smartphones.

TORONTO - The heat is on BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) as the company heads into its annual industry showing of new products and services in what could be the most competitive year yet for smartphones.

The Waterloo, Ont.,-based company opens the three-day annual showcase on Tuesday in Orlando, Fla., where its is expected to update some devices, add new products and partnerships and, perhaps, offer a few surprises.

There are rumours that RIM will announce an updated web browser designed to compete with Apple's popular iPhone, and perhaps even plans for a new operating system.

"In the evolution of the company, this is going to be a very important year, for sure," said Neeraj Monga, an analyst for Veritas Investment Research Corp.

"People are either going to give credit to the company that it can out-compete and out-innovate Apple, or they're going to give up and say 'BlackBerry had a great run, but it's another one of those technology businesses that has matured and just cannot keep up with its innovative competitors,"' Monga said.

Whether this year is literally such a sink-or-swim scenario for RIM is debatable, but it's hard to deny the company is facing some of its fiercest competition yet.

In the past year, both the iPhone and Google's Android smartphones have gained notable shares in North America's smartphone market, a space once clearly dominated by RIM's BlackBerry products.

While RIM was able to build on its solid base within the business and government communities by adding consumer-friendly features to various BlackBerry models, the company has still been under plenty of scrutiny.

Critics say RIM has been slow to develop a new web browser for its devices that can compete with some of the more user-friendly designs on the market.

However, the highly-competitive market is more complex than simply a new browser, as smartphone pioneer Palm learned last year when it unveiled a new browser design to critical raves.

Palm's stock has since fallen to multi-year lows, and recent reports have suggested it has hired Goldman Sachs to help shop the company to potential buyers for about US$1.1 billion.

Despite the turbulence in smartphones - multipurpose devices that handle phone calls, emails and web browsing - BlackBerrys remain dominant on the North American market and among the biggest sellers globally.

Broadpoint AmTech analyst Mark McKechnie said there are two ways to dissect the company's position within the industry.

"They're certainly showing tremendous growth outside of the U.S. as they bring smartphones to lower price points," he said from Orlando, where he planned to attend the symposium.

"We need to see them bring the fight back here to the U.S. and regain their positioning at the high-end (or higher-priced devices)."

While most of RIM's plans will not be unveiled until the conference gets underway, the company offered up its usual tease of product announcements ahead of the launch.

The highlights included a 3G version of its Pearl device and a BlackBerry Bold that works on CDMA network carriers.

The most-anticipated announcements are expected when co-CEO Mike Lazaridis delivers a keynote address starting at 8:30 a,m. EDT on Tuesday. The company's stock price will likely show whether investors are impressed after the market opens.

On Monday near midday, RIM's stock was down $1.73 at $68.85 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, off a 52-week high of $95 and low of $58.64.

In an interview ahead of the conference, co-CEO Jim Balsillie defended the company's position on the market.

"Wind the clock back and I can give you 10 other companies that were put forward that were just overwhelmingly formidable for us to even consider competing against," Balsillie said.

 
 
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