Possible BlackBerry tablet steals the show at company's annual conference

ORLANDO, Fla. – BlackBerry executives delivered a lengthy list of new announcements this week at the smartphone maker’s annual conference, but the buzz has already shifted to what the company may be still hiding up its sleeve, including the possibility of a small tablet device.

The rumours piqued the interest of developers and technology industry insiders at BlackBerry Live, a three-day conference in Orlando that wrapped up on Thursday. In some circles, it nearly overshadowed the company’s launch of a new lower-priced phone and the unlocking of BlackBerry Messenger to non-BlackBerry devices.

Whether or not a smaller tablet — or a phablet — is really on deck for the BlackBerry this year is debatable, but rumours travel fast and run rampant at events like this one.

BlackBerry Live takes place at a hotel complex isolated from most of Orlando’s surroundings, the perfect ecosystem for any information to zip between friends and colleagues.

Chief executive Thorsten Heins has been far from enthusiastic about the future of tablets, but he hasn’t ruled them out. When he met with some industry analysts for a private conversation on Tuesday he didn’t lead them to believe a tablet would hit shelves in the immediate future, said two analysts who asked to remain anonymous because they made non-disclosure agreements.

Both acknowledged that they were told a tablet-like device is at the stage where it is nearly ready to hit the market, though neither of them expected to see it released this year.

Part of the reason BlackBerry could hold out comes down to timing.

The company doesn’t want to kill the momentum that has been built by its new smartphone launch, but BlackBerry could quickly change its mind over the summer as Apple prepares to release a new iPhone.

Heins has given signs that he’s more interested in the software on BlackBerry devices than constantly launching new hardware. Earlier this year he promised that a software update to its poor selling PlayBook tablet software would put the technology on the same wavelength as its BlackBerry 10 smartphones. So far, that hasn’t come to fruition, and Heins declined to say for certain whether an update would come later this year.

Some analysts have taken a different slant on the potential of a phablet this year, including National Bank’s Kris Thompson who published a note Wednesday calling the “phantom tablet” the “main conference chatter” as observers wondered if the BlackBerry Z10 touchscreen phone could be released in a larger size.

“We had a conversation with one important U.S. carrier that indicated a larger Z10 version would be launched later this year or early next year,” he wrote.

Regardless of whether it’s a tablet, BlackBerry will almost certainly have to make a strategic product release sometime later this year. In late 2012, the company was forced to delay its new smartphones and miss the crucial back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons, a stumble its unlikely to repeat again.

Shares of BlackBerry (TSX:BB), formerly known as Research In Motion, were down 15 cents at $15.12 in trading Thursday, bringing the company’s shares about six per cent lower than they were before the start of the conference.

“Watching the stock price is the easiest thing to do, but it provides the least information,” said Robert Enderle, tech analyst at San Jose, Calif.-based Enderle Group, who attended the event.

Despite the share pullback that followed Heins’ latest product announcements, the company had made significant progress since this time last year which has kept it on the radar of the tech industry, he said.

“I think BlackBerry is getting more attention than its market share suggests it should,” Enderle added.

Whether remaining in the spotlight will translate into sales remains to be seen because the keyboard version of the latest BlackBerry doesn’t hit the U.S. until next month, and U.S. sales figures for the touchscreen won’t be released until near the end of June.

Overall, inside the conference bubble the unofficial consensus seemed to be that BlackBerry was making the right moves. Aside from launching a new phone and opening up BBM to other devices, there were other promising developments.

Executives championed technology that will link BlackBerry devices to the interior operations of vehicles, signalling that the company could forge a solid relationship with automakers in the future.

Alicia Keys’ interest in the company also became a little clearer as she took to the stage to announce plans for a four-year scholarship program that will encourage young women to enter specific science and technology fields. While Keys’ role has raised plenty of eyebrows since she announced her partnership with the company in January, she appears to have been actively involved with certain aspects of the conference, though its not entirely clear where the partnership goes from here or how it relates to BlackBerry in the future.

Bank of Montreal analyst Tim Long was underwhelmed by the conference and found “nothing surprising” in how it played out. There weren’t enough crucial details about the cheaper BlackBerry Q5 phone for emerging markets, he said in a note.

“We were discouraged that pricing information for the Q5 was not provided, which we believe signals that Blackberry may be having difficulty reaching an appropriately low level to compete with the onslaught of Android devices,” he wrote.

“If the Q5 is not US$150 or below, it may be dead on arrival.”

For a company that many observers said was steps away from death’s door at this time last year, those words might sound very familiar.