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Can RIM Make a U-Turn?

Much glee and angst is being expressed over RIM’s current “transition“.  The whole situation has become so theatrical and cliched that yesterday I was compelled to tweet my observation that RIM’s current transition in the SmartPhone market is not dissimilar from the Titanic’s transition in the iceberg market.  It’s clear that, along with a litany of 1990s tech giants before it, RIM is following a cliched playbook (pardon the pun) that has not borne long-term dividends for shareholders in the vast majority of prior examples.

The company’s angst, I believe, stems fundamentally from the fact that Apple and other vendors have come to understand that increasingly mobile phones are a consumer purchase decision, and not a corporate one.  And when people can choose, they choose the products they fetishize.  And no one has captured the consumer market’s imagination like Apple, with the iPhone and iPad.  But you, dear reader, already know all of this.

I firmly believe that any turnaround involves deep pain and difficult choices, and I have not seen any sincere effort by the co-CEOs (and now co-COOs) of RIM to make these decisions and brace for the sting.  In fact, judging by their actions it’s not even clear that Messers Balsillie and Lazaridis actually agree with the prevailing notion that there actually is anything wrong with their company.  These layoffs and strategic pronouncements feel mostly like lip service.

At any rate, in the unlikely event that I were to suddenly become the CEO of RIM, a company that is about 1,300 times larger than my own modest startup, here is what I would do:

  1. Split the company in two.
    RIM is really the composite of two companies — network and messaging services for carriers and consumers, and smartphones which we users decreasingly hold in our hands.  For the majority of RIM’s lifecycle these two components were strategically and inextricably bound — cool devices with unique features drove demand for the services carriers needed to obtain in order to be able to fulfill that demand, and thus sell more devices — however now that RIM’s infiltration of the carrier market is largely ubiquitous that delta into the mobile network needs to be taken in two directions.  The devices and the network services are now loosely coupled, and the need to tie them together feels more like an albatross.  In order to progress on both fronts these cannot be constrained by the need to support the other’s objectives.
  2. Kill the Playbook.
    I’m really not sure why anyone would enter a race not intending to take a stab at winning it.  We have lived with the PlayBook for months now and it still doesn’t have an email client — akin to BMW selling a car without an accelerator pedal.   It is clear to all that aside from the potential for limited enterprise and government sales there is very little chance for the Playbook market to expand.  It has no raison d’etre; no killer app; no je ne sais quoi.  Apparently RIM doesn’t sais quoi either, as the Product Manager for the Playbook and the one of company’s VPs of Marketing have just quit — not a good sign.  As far as branding and marketing is concerned, the Playbook is an attention and messaging sinkhole; and it almost certainly has distracted R&D, preventing RIM from building an iPhone competitor that we could get behind.
  3. Focus on 3rd-party developers.
    It would be impossible to deny that much of the demand for iOS is driven by the myriad things that one can do with an iPhone or iPad.  In fact, the iPhone is actually quite a terrible telephonic device, with a bad chipset choice and terrible RF engineering, and it’s consistently suffered supply chain problems as Apple struggles to keep up with demand.  None of these issues matters.  Most iPhone apps suck.  But they suck a lot more on Blackberries, where they exist there at all.  Developers have to run a gauntlet of a horrifically bad developer ecosystem, fragmentation (the need to have multiple versions of each app) that reminds most of us of J2ME, a distribution system which is spotty, and even an enterprise policy shield which allows IT managers to lock down phones and prevent apps from being installed.  If I see an iPhone in someone’s hand I know I can get the ONE version of our app onto it.  If I see a Blackberry in someone’s hand the odds of that user being able to get and run our app may be as low as 3 in 10.
  4. Understand that BlackBerry Messenger, and messaging, is the company’s strategic future and open it up to other platforms.
    RIM fears cross-platform messaging apps like Kik and WhatsApp enough to take steps toward actively blocking them.  However nothing could possibly be more powerful, or useful, than a cross-platform BlackBerry Messenger network.  This could subsume the lowly phone number as a primary identifier for communications, and subvert the wireless carriers in a way that Apple has actually been executing on much more poorly than you’d expect.  As part of this strategy I would help the company understand that messaging is not simply “WHAT R U DOING LOL” messages flying back and forth, but also includes Push Notifications for apps, call setup requests, and social networking.  As part of this strategy I would acquire Urban Airship, a modestly-funded private company that could be bought for <$100M and would become a catalyst for radical change within RIM, again leveraging the company’s delta into carriers.  Messaging is the one thing RIM has going for it that is hugely viral, and they’ve got a massive critical mass to build upon in the existing BlackBerry market that they simply need to unlock.
  5. Stop dicking around with cheap plastic phones, and own the keyboard.
    One area in which Apple has exhibited significant leadership is the use of real materials, such as glass and metal, in their devices.  This gives them a stronger and indeed perennial feel, while the plastic on most BBs tends to fade in colour and begins to look tired and damaged within a few short months.  Everything about the BlackBerry needs to feel solid — including the keys.  Speaking of which, the domain of the keyboard is an area that the iPhone is unlikely ever to tread upon.  Use this to differentiate the BB and shame Apple.  There are many many users (among them women with long fingernails) who will NOT give up their keyboard for a touch screen, and a generation of teens who have known text messaging as their primary means of communication for more than a decade.  The focus on the keyboard is one of RIM’s core strengths.

I’ve purposefully attempted to avoid reading others’ prescriptions for RIM so I apologize in advance if any of these represents overlap.

I’ve been a shoulder to cry on for colleagues from Telus and Cisco often enough to not want to witness the death of what may well be the last great Canadian telecom company.  Even as recently as 5 years ago, RIM was lauded for its culture of innovation and relentless aggression.  However, the current wave of layoffs and strategic pronouncements are nothing more than hackneyed Wall Street pandering — a movie we’ve seen before at other declining giants that have never recovered — and these moves have already killed that culture.  I have seen what this kind of short-term management thinking and denial can do to a company’s culture, nurturing an internal environment where lifers sandbag their turf and the company’s former wunderkind rest and vest.  Neither behaviour is conducive to the kind of thinking or the can-do attitude that gets companies turned around quickly.  And really, who would want to be CEO and lead that sort of army into battle?  Not me.

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