--By WILL CONNORS
Research In Motion Ltd. RIM.T +2.44% is rolling out two new BlackBerrys next month that Chief Executive Thorsten Heins promises will make RIM competitive again in the global smartphone market.
If he is successful, a big chunk of the credit will go to a small acquisition RIM made more than a year before Mr. Heins took over in January 2012. In 2010, RIM bought Sweden-based The Astonishing Tribe, a small but well-respected technology-design house, and charged it with reinventing the look and feel of the BlackBerry's user interface.
The Astonishing Tribe
The team behind The Astonishing Tribe, a Swedish technology-design firm that helped create the look and feel of the new BlackBerry's software.
That interface has recently garnered positive reviews from analysts, RIM partners and some outside application developers, who are now test-driving thousands of prototypes of the new BlackBerry operating system that RIM has handed out in recent months. Many of those early endorsements come hedged, however, because they haven't seen the final version. And most app developers, key to RIM's success, are largely withholding judgment until after the Jan. 30 launch.
"It is going to be a massive departure from the BlackBerry experience of the past," said Chris Eben, a partner at Toronto-based The Working Group, a Web and mobile development-and-design firm that does work for RIM, and who has used the prototype.
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Justin Sullivan/Associated Press
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Odds that RIM can recapture the market dominance it once enjoyed in smartphones appear slim. Industry consultancy IDC recently estimated RIM's share of the global smartphone market now stands at 4.7%, down from 9.5% at this time last year and more than 50% in 2009. Even amid RIM's core customer base, corporate and government clients, IDC now expects Apple Inc.'s AAPL -2.12% iPhones to surpass BlackBerry shipments by next year.
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But many investors are newly hopeful. Signs the phone will come out as scheduled next month have helped, as did news Thursday that the large U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is planning to test the new BlackBerry only months after it said it was dumping the device for the iPhone.
RIM shares have risen nearly 90% in the past three months, reaching a new seven-month high on Nasdaq Thursday. In recent trading, RIM shares were up 3% to $13.71.
While it is still too early to say whether the phones will revive RIM's fortunes, company executives are crediting The Astonishing Tribe, or TAT, with giving RIM a fighting chance.
TAT has "been the single largest contributor to the design of the experience for BB10," or BlackBerry 10, the coming smartphones' new operating system, said Don Lindsay, RIM vice president for user experience, in an interview in September. "They are driving all of this."
That is despite what current and former RIM executives describe as months of tension, mixed messages and professional rivalry between executives at RIM headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, and TAT offices in Malmo, Sweden. Less than two months before RIM's new phone debuts, just one of TAT's six founders is still with the company, these executives say.
At several points last year, for instance, RIM executives told TAT employees to build a tool using one type of coding language, only to change their minds later and order them to use a different language, setting the project back by weeks, according to people familiar with the relationship. "There was a big clash of cultures," one of the people said.
RIM had always expected "there would be a period where we got to know each other," according to Chris Smith, a RIM vice president. "We knew there would be clashes and there would be some working through how those teams would come together and deliver."
Key to the new BB10 phones, RIM executives say, is the new interface, developed in part by TAT, which departs from the current BlackBerry user experience. As seen in demonstrations, it allows users to move more easily from one app to another and attempts to make some humdrum tasks, like setting the alarm clock, more fun.
The new phones' built-in Facebook FB +2.37% application—along with other apps that will come preinstalled at launch—was created using Cascades, a design language built by TAT used for constructing applications.
RIM has made the language available widely to developers, hoping they will embrace it and make new apps for BB10. RIM itself has a team of its own developers working on building tools based on Cascades.
TAT designers also helped build the BB10's "Hub," a central screen in which users can see all their incoming messages, from email and text messages to Facebook and Twitter updates, without toggling back and forth between those applications or halting a loading Web page or video on the browser. While other phones already offer similar features, it is a big departure from the current BlackBerry, and RIM executives say it will be more user-friendly than other phones.
In recent presentations and at conferences, RIM executives have shown off several other features, more fun than revolutionary, that bear TAT's design fingerprints: To set the phone's alarm clock, a user drags a finger around a clock image. A user unlocks the new phone with an upward swipe of the finger, instead of the sideways swipe familiar to many smartphone owners.
A group of six friends in Malmo founded TAT in 2002, originally working on digital visual effects for movie productions and television commercials, among other projects. But it quickly grew to a 200-person outfit, with mobile-phone clients ranging from Samsung Corp. 000830.SE +2.31% and Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. TAT did some of the first design work on Google Inc.'s GOOG +0.80% Android OS.
After RIM agreed to retain TAT's workforce and keep it in Malmo, TAT agreed to be acquired for about $117 million, according to people familiar with the matter. TAT staffers were tasked with helping RIM improve the software design of a new operating system RIM was readying for its next line of devices.
TAT executives "understood what it meant to create something attractive, fun, playful, clever—attributes which you do not associate with RIM," said Mr. Lindsay. "We needed that. We needed that talent."--