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BlackBerry 6.1 Will Be Major Upgrade Says RIM

Thursday during the company's year-end / Q4 fiscal 2011 earnings call with investors, RIM claimed that the next release of its BlackBerry OS (6.1) won't be an incremental update, but rather a "major upgrade" to the BlackBerry platform. The news isn't surprising given that Google's release of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) was somewhat of a major overhaul in comparison to the previous Android 2.2 "Froyo."

A few weeks ago, leaked screenshots of RIM's upcoming OS revealed it to feature mobile hotspot tethering, allowing up to five external devices to wirelessly connect to the Internet. BlackBerry owners will reportedly have the option to enable the feature right in the Connections screen, and even configure the hotspot to shut down automatically if no devices are actively connected (which saves battery power). There are also reports that NFC (near field communication) support will be integrated into the upcoming OS as well.

In addition to hotspot tethering, RIM's BlackBerry OS 6.1 is expected to allow users to limit the number of icon rows appearing on the screen-- these will remain fixed no matter the orientation of the device. There will also be an option to manage Home screen panes, allowing users to keep all panes open on the screen, or to simply turn individual panes on including Favorites, Media, Downloads and Frequent. This will be especially helpful to consumers who haven't purchased a touchscreen device and need to simplify the Home screen.

During a conference call last week, Sanyu Kiruluta, EMEA Team Lead for Developer Relations at RIM, said BlackBerry OS 6.1 will include APIs for the device magnetometer and digital compass. Support for OpenGL ES 2.0 will also be present as well as event-based geo-fencing location APIs, enhancements to the barcode APIs for additional formats and custom decoding, and more.

During Thursday's conference call, RIM stated that BlackBerry 6.1-based devices will hit the market later this year. Co-CEO Jim Balsillie said the company's powerful roadmap would actually kick-off during Q2 2011 and continue on throughout the year. Coupled with the launch of its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, the company roadmap is expected to drive strong sales volumes and help RIM achieve its earnings target.

"It's a time of enormous investment and transition," Balsillie told investors. RIM is expected to reveal more during BlackBerry World this May, so stay tuned.