TORONTO Research In Motion Ltd said on Monday that it had begun a "beta testing" program that allows 120 companies and government departments to try out its new BlackBerry 10 smartphones before their global launch on January 30.
The Canadian company, which is trying to reverse a sharp decline in market share for the BlackBerry, said the program would enable so-called enterprise customers in business and government to size up the BB10.
Features of the BB10 include the ability to separate personal and business information so that the user can store both without compromising security.
RIM has struggled in recent years to hold on to its base of enterprise customers, which typically pay a higher subscription fee than consumers, as their employees push to use devices such as Apple Inc's iPhone for business as well as personal communications.
"This is a crucial step for us in getting our large enterprise customers ready to support BlackBerry 10 at the point of launch date, as opposed to post-launch date," Bryan Lee, senior director for enterprise accounts, said in a phone interview.
RIM is providing the software and handsets at no charge, and the companies do not have to buy anything once the trial is finished.
The company plans to release its quarterly results on Thursday, and analysts expect it to report its third straight loss as it struggles to sell its older devices.
RIM made its name selling mobile email devices to bankers, lawyers and other professionals before expanding to sell phones to consumers.
The company said the BB10 testers were from financial, insurance, healthcare, manufacturing, media, and distribution industries and include 64 Fortune 500 companies, as well as government departments.
Lee would not identify any of the entities, beyond Integris Health and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which have both said they are testing the new devices.
The customers have installed test versions of RIM's new server software, which manages iPhones and devices using Google Inc's Android software as well as BlackBerrys, and will each receive two preproduction BlackBerry 10 handsets later this week.
RIM shares were down 2.1 percent at C$13.59 in morning Toronto Stock Exchange trading.
The stock has rallied from September's multiyear lows around C$6.50 on a wave of optimism over the new devices, but the share price is still far below mid-2008 highs of around C$150.
(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)