RIM chief executive says BlackBerry's physical keypads aren't being eliminated

ORLANDO, Fla. – While many changes are afoot at BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion its chief executive vows the devices will continue to include the popular physical keyboard — despite rumours to the contrary.

Thorsten Heins told media at the BlackBerry World conference in Orlando on Wednesday that its new line of BlackBerrys, due for release later this year, will include both touchscreen and physical keyboards.

“We won’t lose the focus on physical keypads. It would be wrong — just plain wrong to do this,” Heins said.

The CEO was left scurrying to clear the air after he spent much of Tuesday touting an early version of the new BlackBerry 10 operating system that appeared to rely solely on touchscreen technology.

Judging by the initial reception his showcase seemed to wow the crowd of mostly developers and carriers, but by the time the event was over, RIM’s stock was down a hefty 5.8 per cent Tuesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

The company’s stock dropped a further 5.1 per cent on Wednesday, closing down 68 cents to $12.63.

Some reports suggested that Heins’ presentation was a sign RIM would completely ditch the physical keys that helped build its name and are favoured by many of its users.

The confusion obviously wasn’t ideal for the Waterloo-based company which is trying to rebuild its reputation after a series of technical blunders and management changes, which include hunting for a new chief marketing officer to navigate the campaign for its upcoming devices, due late this year.

BlackBerry 10 is seen as an important part of RIM’s attempt to compete against the likes of Apple’s iPhone and devices using Google’s Android operating system.

One of RIM’s challenges will be keeping both the technology community and average consumers clear about where the company is headed as it trickles out details over the next few months, leading to the launch of its new products later this year. RIM hasn’t revealed what its new line of smartphones will look like, but it wanted to use the Orlando conference as an opportunity for developers to witness its new operating system.

On Wednesday, Heins spent a large portion of his nearly hour-long session with reporters and bloggers trying to clear the air.

“We only showed you one element of what the future of the BlackBerry 10 portfolio might look like,” he said.

But then Heins offered the type of candid criticism that was once unheard of at the company.

“We need to improve our marketing,” he said, pointing in particular to the company’s muddled global rollout of the BlackBerry 7 operating system about a year ago.

“It was not coherent. It was not really what RIM was about.”

Heins, formerly the company’s chief operating officer, said he reached that conclusion as part of a major reexamination of the organization that began shortly after he became head of the company in January.

“It became clear that — here and there — the company has a little fat on the hips,” he said of his initial impression as the new CEO.

“One thing really became obvious when I looked at various parts of the company was that we needed focus.”

RIM has often been critcized by analysts for its lack of clear strategy, which had caused it to fall behind the innovations of its smartphone competitors. The launch of the PlayBook tablet device was considered turbulent at best and sales of the device have been underwhelming.

Heins was put in charge of all product engineering functions last July, about the time Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) announced it would cut 2,000 jobs worldwide.

He reflected on the state of the company when he began his role as CEO, characterizing the company as one that wanted to “conquer the world.”

“You lose a little bit of line-of-sight on efficiency of the organization … because everything becomes an opportunity that you want to pursue,” he said.

“RIM is not a gaming company, lets face it. RIM is not a maps company.”

The three-day conference in Orlando comes as questions swirl about the future of the Canadian technology firm, which has been at the centre of takeover speculation for months.

Financial analysts are mostly absent from the conference, as RIM opted to hold a separate analyst event timed for the release of the BlackBerry 10 models later this year.

In recent years the analyst and developer events were both held at the annual conference.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the BlackBerry 10 operating system was demonstrated Monday.