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Updated: BlackBerry teaming up with UI firm

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Updated: I made some incorrect assumptions on HTC relationship with You i Labs and corrected the story to reflect my error! There are additional details as well. 

Research In Motion (s RIMM), the company behind the iconic BlackBerry line of smartphones is rumored to be hiring YOU i Labs, an Ontario-based design firm that helped develop the front-end user experience for mobile phone makers in TaiwanTaiwan’s HTC. My sources in the mobile design industry have indicated that a deal was in the works between the two companies. Initially, it seemed RIM was going to buy YOU i Labs, but in the end, it turned out to be a significant partnership between the two companies it just might be that two companies are rumored to be working together. You i Labs denies the acquisition rumors and any active discussions with the Canadian phone maker.

There are rumors that the company might be in the process of acquiring Teknision, which has helped develop the Playbook UI. Teknision and You i Labs signed a strategic partnership in March 2011. You i Labs CEO Jason Flick in an email wrote: “They are a very close partner and we intend to continue bringing our companies closer together and they do have a relationship with RIM. ”

The deal would be a boost for both You i Labs and RIM, which has been focusing more on improving the user experience on its devices. Last December, RIM bought The Astonishing Tribe or TAT, a Swedish UI design firm to help improve tablet and smartphone UI design. YOU i Labs develops user experience and interface technologies for mobile devices of all kinds including tablets, smartphones and other mobile electronics. YOU i Labs boasts that nearly 500 million devices are running software developed by the company.

You i Labs has developed Sense-like UI for its clients that include Taiwanese phone manufacturers who in turn make phones for large handset makers. The company says it has no links with HTC or HTC Sense. From previously published reports it seemed that there was a link between the two companies. Additionally, when I emailed CEO  Flick, he didn’t correct my question/assumption.

In an email he wrote, “I just noticed you did mention them in your email to us and I didn’t catch that reference, so I apologize for that.  I suspect that reference comes from an article that talks about how while in Taiwan last week we spoke to so many ODM/OBM companies that need/want to do what HTC has and we are helping them.”

HTC, had used Sense UI as a way to stand out in a marketplace full of similar-looking Android devices. I have been a big fan of HTC Sense and have applauded their desire to stand out from the crowd, whether through Sense or through their investments in different companies or their outright acquisitions of applications and services that enhance their platform. HTC recently unveiled the OpenSense SDK, a tool that will allow developers to write applications on top of its Sense UI. My colleague Ryan Kim reported that “this is part of a larger rollout of HTCdev, a program aimed at supporting developers by providing tools and resources.”

RIM, which now makes the Playbook tablet, has been trying to develop a unique user experience to go along with its messaging strengths. YOU i Labs also works closely with Teknision, a Taiwanese small company also based in Ottawa, Ontario that designs the Playbook UI. (There is some chatter that Teknision might be getting acquired by You i Labs.) Bolstering its user experience is a good move for the company which has been increasingly feeling the pressure from rivals: Apple’s iOS devices (s AAPL) and Google’s Android (s GOOG) OS device ecosystem. According to Gartner (s it), RIM’s worldwide smartphone market share in the first quarter dropped to 12.9 percent from 19.7 percent a year earlier.

In a recent presentation, Jason Flick, the founder of You i Labs talked about the emergence of what he calls the Era of the Intimate User Interface.

5 Responses to “Updated: BlackBerry teaming up with UI firm”

  1. I like this move from RIM but think it to be just a start – not the solution. They really need to re-imagine their product line. RIM may need to lock their smartest people in a room and get back to the “research” part of Research in Motion. Devine what people will be doing with handheld technologies in 3 years and build towards that – enough with playing catch-up, it’s a game that gets increasingly harder to win.

    Also, Om, both You I Labs and Teknision are Ottawa (Canada) based companies (you had Teknision listed as a Taiwanese firm in the article).

  2. I feel like it’s a double-edge sword for RIM. If they don’t overhaul their UI, they won’t attract new eyes. But if they do, it will most likely look a lot more like the iPhone and Android, which will disenfranchise their core.

    They need to make sure that their UI stays simple and clean and enterprise-friendly, all while allowing for new features that will keep them relevant. Tricky business for a company not known lately for its revolutionary thought.

    • Lucian Armasu

      When disrupted, it’s never the right choice to “improve” on your old technology to appeal to the new market that prefers the disruptive technology. They should’ve kept Blackberry mostly as it is, while pushing QNX hard to this new market and to developers. The problem is QNX has arrived so late, and it’s not even in phones yet. It won’t be until next year. Their slow reaction to iOS/Android and wishful thinking that they can improve Blackberry OS to match them is what got them in this mess.

    • I think the key for RIM would be to improve the Blackberry OS experience on the touch devices. We have to remember that Blackberry is primarily a keyboard device and touch is not an natural interface for the platform.

      I am actually pretty excited to see how this shakes out and what emerges from the collaboration.