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RIM Enters Crucial Six-Month Period Amid Shareholder Grumbling

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Research in Motion’s co-CEOs pleaded for time Tuesday to get seven new BlackBerry devices out the door before plunging into the new era of its QNX software, putting even more pressure on the company during its annual meeting of investors to regain its momentum in the second half of the year.

For the most part, RIM’s annual meeting was boring and anticlimactic, which means it was pretty much identical to every other annual meeting of shareholders held in the technology industry. All the board members were duly re-elected, and no surprise proposals were aired following the decision of one activist investor to take its resolution off the ballot in exchange for getting RIM’s board to agree to study the feasibility of maintaining its two-chairman/two-CEO management structure.

But Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis spent several minutes addressing the crowd about RIM’s recent challenges and why they aren’t worried about a comeback, pointing specifically to RIM’s growth internationally and their hopes for this “transition” phase that has seen RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) fall dramatically behind its competitors in the U.S. with the delay of its BlackBerry 7 handsets.

Seven new BlackBerry 7 handsets are scheduled to launch over the rest of the year, Lazaridis said, outlining plans for the new operating system beyond the two BlackBerry Bold devices introduced in May. He defended the decision to delay the handsets–which has caused a steep drop in RIM’s U.S. sales–by noting that the move to a new chipset platform across all those handsets will make it easier to introduce new models.

Lazaridis also confirmed that RIM would launch a 4G version of its Playbook tablet later this year, although he didn’t specify which wireless carrier would have the device. The Playbook hasn’t exactly taken off, but nor has it been the outright disaster that Android tablets have faced trying to catch up to Apple’s massive lead in the tablet market.

And he reiterated plans to release QNX-based smartphones in early 2012, describing QNX as the company’s “mobile computing” software and effectively damning the BlackBerry software to a lower-tier “messaging” category, which might not bode well for RIM’s attempts to market the new BlackBerry 7 phones in the second half of the year.

Several shareholders took the microphone to vent their frustration with RIM’s strategy, but it also heard messages of support from the faithful in Waterloo, Ontario. Still, it’s clear that RIM has a fundamental problem not unlike what Nokia (NYSE: NOK) currently faces: it’s scrambling to get a next-generation software platform out the door (Nokia=Windows Phone 7, RIM=QNX) but it still needs to sell its existing products in order to hit profitability targets for the current year. It’s the old Osbourne dilemma, in that technology companies have to be careful how they describe future products lest they kill demand for their existing products. RIM is seeing strong growth outside the U.S., but at this stage of the mobile computing game the U.S. is driving the market forward and trends that take off in the U.S. are bound to filter down to other countries at a certain point.

RIM has already promised to cut costs in 2011, which will include layoffs. Balsillie promised to give more details about the size and depth of the cuts during RIM’s next earnings call, currently scheduled for September 15th.

Northwest & Ethical Investments, the shareholder that forced RIM’s board to acknowledge the dissatisfaction with its management structure, told Bloomberg it is giving the company until January 31st to come up with some justification for its management structure or it will reintroduce a measure next year calling for a separation of the chairman and CEO roles. Should RIM not make its yearly targets because of slow BlackBerry sales ahead of the QNX introduction, it’s going to be hard for the board to justify the status quo.

So in the interim, RIM plans to cozy up to wireless carriers as a possible foil to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) in hopes of getting better placement in carrier stores, it told the New York Times. That may work to boost RIM’s shipment totals, but may not be the best long-term strategy in terms of courting consumers: carriers are not a warm and fuzzy presence in the mobile market.