RIM CEO: We have a ‘clear shot’ at No. 3

Research In Motion has had a hard slog over the past year, but is poised to reclaim its spot among the top mobile ecosystems, CEO Thorsten Heins said today during a press briefing at BlackBerry Jam. Heins said the company’s decision to bet everything on its new BlackBerry 10 operating system would allow the company to begin growing its user base once again in the United States and North America, where it has rapidly lost ground to devices from Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, among others. “We have a clear shot at being the No. 3 platform in the market,” said Heins, who took the reigns at RIM nine months ago. “Carriers want other platforms. And we’re not just another open platform running on another system. We’re BlackBerry.” Becoming no. 3 in installed base of mobile devices would mean surpassing Symbian, which currently holds that spot. Android and iOS are the top two mobile platforms by a comfortable margin. Heins said developers are eager to build apps for BlackBerry’s base of 80 million users around the world, and said BlackBerry 10 was the most productive version of the operating system to date. But for all the cheerleading, there was little in the way of concrete information about the new platform: when the new devices will be available, beyond reiterating it will be in the first quarter of 2013; how they will be priced; which carriers it has signed; and, crucially, why mainstream consumers are likely to opt for these devices over robust offerings on iOS and Android. The company also declined to discuss financial data, citing a mandatory quiet period in advance of its earnings report on Thursday. “BlackBerry 10 is on track,” Heins said. “Our sales forces are getting ready. Better devices are in testing.” Heins’ remarks came after a nearly two-hour demonstration of BlackBerry 10’s user interface, which employs a system called “Peek” to allow for fast switching between apps, messages, and notifications. In a demonstration, it appeared to be an elegant way to check in quickly on various corners of the operating system. At the same time, engineers struggled at times to get it to work, occasionally having to swipe up two or three times before the gesture started to work. RIM executives worked nonetheless to rally developers back to the company’s side, pledging that certified developers will make at least US$10,000 from their apps (if they meet a few conditions), and appearing in a whimsical music video together that quickly went viral in tech circles.


BlackBerry network down again

RIM’s BlackBerry network is down again, disconnecting users in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but that won’t come as a surprise to the socially connected.

The outage started around 09.00 this morning, RIM reckons it’s only affecting “some users” but the mailbox here at Vulture Central is filling up with (sadly resigned) complaints from readers who’ve experienced the problem so “some” would seem to be a significant proportion.

 RIM isn’t saying what’s going wrong, only promising to get it fixed as quickly as possible and apologising for the inconvenience.

“We are currently experiencing a BlackBerry service issue impacting some users in Europe, Middle East & Africa. All relevant support teams are working to resolve the issue. We apologize to any customers who may be affected.”

The more socially-aware BlackBerry user will already know all this: BlackBerry’s Twitter feed and Facebook page have had notifications about the problem for the last hour or so, and if you don’t subscribe to the spewing news feed of every manufacturer of every service you use daily then you really only have yourself to blame.

How to avoid costly app bills

Ensure you are safe from your children’s sky-high app bills.

Home screen of Apple iPhone 3GS

It’s all too easy to allow your children to buy expensive add-ons to iPad games. Photo: Alamy
Many parents will happily hand over their iPhone or iPad to their children in a bid to get a few moments of peace and quiet. But few are aware of the financial pitfalls that can be caused by just a few flicks of a finger.

This week, a six-year-old boy left his family with a £2,000 credit card bill after using an app on his grandfather’s iPad. The youngster had spent the amount on a special app which involves children “collecting” and “breeding” their own online creatures.

To the relief of the grandparents, Apple refunded the money once the situation was explained. However, not all families are so lucky.

While free downloadable apps can keep children of all ages amused for hours, many offer expensive add-ons that are supposed to improve the gaming experience. These “in-app purchases” might include virtual credits for buying items in the game, special abilities for game characters, additional levels not accessible in the free version of the game, or the ability to skip a level that might be challenging.

Even the most popular – and seemingly harmless – mobile games possess in-app purchases, from a “Mighty Eagle” that automatically clears levels in Angry Birds to packs of extra turns in Flight Control.

The economics behind this have spawned the term “freemium” to describe the practice of offering a free app with expensive enhancements. As gaming apps have become more sophisticated, the risks to parents have become greater. This ‘freemium’ model initially took off on Facebook, where money is charged for expediting progress or additional content.

The fees are not to be scoffed at; some games charge as much as £70 per purchase. Freemium apps use the iTunes purchase mechanism to streamline the process, so it is easy to buy items without leaving the game. In some cases gamers don’t even have to type in credit card details or a password.

And as many parents have found, it’s this ease of purchase that is the greatest risk. With Smurf Village, for instance, the cheapest in-app purchase costs £2.99, but a wagon-full of virtual “Smurfberries” can be had for £69.99, all at the tap of a finger. The charges will be billed to the iTunes account and credit card associated with the gadget.

For those who wish to ensure they are protected, updating software is very straightforward and should take just an hour or so. The following tips should ensure you can safely hand your phone to your children.

Update the software

“Updating the software on an iPad or iPhone can be done on the device itself,” Mr Wiggins said. “To check if a newer version is available to download and install, parents should go to the ‘Settings’ menu, scroll down and select ‘General’, then choose ‘Software Update’.”

Apple recommends always backing up data before updating or restoring. To learn how to do this, visit support.apple.com/kb/HT1766.

If you choose to update when you are not connected to your computer, you will need to use Wi‑Fi instead of 3G, as the file size will be too big.

Alternatively, if you connect your device to your computer, a pop-up window will say if your software is out of date and you will be prompted to install the latest version.

Disable the purchase function

Another option is to disable the in-app purchases function on your Apple device. To do this, go to “Settings”, select “General”, tap “Restrictions” and select “Enable Restrictions”. Here you must create a unique four-digit passcode, then scroll down to “Allowed Content” and turn off “In-app Purchases”.

Bear in mind that unless you adjust the time necessary before a password is required to purchase content, it will automatically allocate a 15-minute time limit. This will mean that if it has been less than a quarter of an hour since you downloaded the app or made an in-app purchase, your children will not be required to type in your password again, potentially racking up a huge bill without inputting any additional details.

Use Airplane Mode

Even if you aren’t flying, this will block all downloads and in-app purchases. To do this on an iPhone or iPad, go to “General”, select “Settings” and then turn “Airplane Mode” to the on setting.

Gift card option

For the parents of teenagers who wish to make purchases on their own device, but who do not have their own bank account, using an iTunes gift card instead of your credit card will help avoid unwanted costs.

Get Google savvy

It is not only Apple products that can leave parents facing potentially hefty bills. With Google’s Android, in-app purchasing is also problem, but, as with the iPhone and iPad, there is protection available.

To ensure your Android is safe, always activate the “Screen lock” function, which will force users to enter a pattern, pin or a password on the device each time an item is to be bought. To set this up simply go to “Settings” then “Security” – and then you can choose and set it.

Similarly, removing bank details from “Google Checkout” can stop this function from being exploited. To remove your information, go to the “Google Checkout” site and log into your account.

On the left of the screen will be a link called “Edit payment methods”. Follow that and you will get a list of your accounts. Remove your financial details with the delete button. The Android Market will pull your payment information directly from Google Checkout so no apps can be purchased – by yourself or your children. For future purchases, simply re-enter the details on your account.


Microsoft, RIM ink new licensing agreement

Calm down, Microsoft isn’t the one buying!

Shares of Research in Motion spiked briefly on Tuesday on news that the struggling smartphone maker had signed a new licensing agreement with Microsoft, but investors who hoped the deal meant Redmond would bundle BlackBerry technology with its phones were in for a disappointment.

Instead, RIM has licensed a group of Microsoft patents related to the exFAT file system, a way of formatting flash storage media for use in mobile devices.

“Today’s smartphones and tablets require the capacity to display richer images and data than traditional cellular phones,” a Microsoft rep said in a canned statement. “This agreement with RIM highlights how a modern file system, such as exFAT can help directly address the specific needs of customers in the mobile industry.”

The exFAT technology is loosely based on Redmond’s venerable FAT file system, which has been available in some form since before the MS-DOS days. According to Microsoft, the new version accommodates much larger files than earlier file systems and makes accessing them faster.

Equally important for Steve Ballmer and Company, exFAT is also protected by a number of Microsoft patents, in addition to patents pertaining to the older FAT technology.

By licensing the exFAT patents, RIM joins a growing number of device makers, flash storage vendors, and software companies who have chosen to fork over fees to Redmond rather than face possible legal troubles down the road.

In 2009, Microsoft sued GPS navigation system vendor TomTom when it refused to negotiate licenses to patents related to the older FAT technology. TomTom eventually settled for an undisclosed sum, and although critics have continued to challenge the validity of the FAT patents, the industry was put on notice that Microsoft meant business.

The patents on the newer exFAT file system seem less vulnerable to legal challenges than the FAT patents, leading many companies to conclude that licensing them would be the most prudent option. Licensees include such heavyweights as Canon, Panasonic, SanDisk, Sanyo, Sharp, and Sony, among others.

Microsoft says its intellectual property division has inked over 1,100 deals since 2003, though it doesn’t say exactly how many have been related to FAT or exFAT.

It also doesn’t like to disclose just how much it will receive in fees from its licensees. Camera, camcorder, and digital photo–frame makers get away with paying a flat rate of $300,000, but phone, PC, and network vendors must negotiate their own volume licenses.

Last year, Redmond was reportedly pressuring Samsung to cough up $15 per phone, while the South Korean mobile maker wanted to knock that payment down to $10 per. If such rates are typical, Microsoft could be earning impressive revenue from the mobile phone business, even from customers who turn up their noses at Windows Phone.

Whatever the fee RIM negotiated, however, it was surely less expensive than a potential lawsuit. The Canadian firm is currently burning through its cash reserves as it prepares for next year’s launch of its delayed BlackBerry 10 platform, and it can little afford new expenses.

It had a close call in August when a jury said it owed $147.2m in damages for infringing a patent owned by Mformation Technologies, but a judge later overturned that verdict.

For the patent deal with Microsoft to be actually worth the expense, however, RIM still needs to actually do something with the patents. Where are those BlackBerry 10 phones, again?