How RIM Can (Maybe) Save Itself

I’ve been thinking about making a post like this for a while now and in light of yesterday’s big news, I figured there’s no better a time than now.

I’ve been a mostly happy BlackBerry user for almost seven years now. I received my first one when I was hired on with Geek Squad Canada (I just felt a chill mentioning that name), I bought my own in 2008 and when I started with my current employer, they took over my plan and gave me another one. Just a couple of weeks ago, our entire company upgraded to shiny new Bold 9900s. They’re arguably the best BlackBerries ever made but I will say that if my employer wasn’t paying for my cell service, I would have probably bought an Android phone. I’ve always liked the fact that their phones are well made, easy to use and while not feature and app rich, do what they do very well. To this day, there is no better a single device for handling e-mail and phone calls, especially in a business environment. What BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has failed to understand the last several years is that’s no longer enough. Consumers, not enterprise are driving the epic growth in smartphones right now and they’ve made it abundantly clear that what they want is apps, media capabilities, speed and pretty interfaces. For all my legitimate problems with Apple this is something they, Android and to a lesser extent, Microsoft with Windows Phone 7 understand well. BlackBerries are very good at what they do but compared to the competition, they’re basic at best. They have an anaemic app landscape, they’re underpowered and while their interface is functional, it’s not what I would call eye-grabbing. Their attempt at a tablet with the PlayBook was a very nice piece of hardware with a nice operating system running it but it lacked some of the most boneheadedly fundamental features such as e-mail, calendar and contacts unless you were prepared to endure the hassle of pairing it with a BlackBerry phone as well. As a result, an otherwise nice device has been a dismal failure, even after steep price cuts.

In short, they’re out of touch with what the biggest growth segment in smartphones and tablets wants. Consumers have responded by driving RIM’s market share from total domination down to estimates as low as 15% by the end of last year. Their stock price has tanked (they were once Canada’s most valuable company) and they have managed to cling to profitability but only because they keep swinging the axe on staff every couple of months. Most of these failures can be attributed to their (now ex) Co-CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. These two men have an impressive legacy. They started RIM from scratch, invented the smartphone as we know it (something many people forget) and led their Waterloo startup to stratospheric heights. Then Apple and Google got into the game. Unfortunately, the great danger faced by many who go unchallenged for too long–an inflated ego–took hold of them and they more or less refused to acknowledge the changing times, hoping that by looking at the ground and putting their fingers in their ears, they could just shut out what was happening around them. They thought that people were loyal to BlackBerry and that what they wanted was function over form. While there are people like me who will often agree with that sentiment, the public likes shiny things more, something Apple has done an exceptional job of proving. RIM still does business class devices like no one else but it’s only a matter of time until they are challenged in that arena as well. When you try to create a product for consumers and have it designed solely by engineers, disaster in the market is often the result. BlackBerry devices go a step further than that: Their vision was crafted by mathematicians.

All is not lost however. For the time being, Research In Motion is still is good financial condition. As of this writing they have zero debt, $1.31 billion in cash on hand and even with their stock at a fraction of what it once was, a market cap of $8.02 billion. That’s nothing to sneeze at and though they’ve only managed to maintain profitability by slicing and dicing their workforce, they are nonetheless still profitable. They arguably have the resources to mount a huge restructuring, nay reboot of the company both operationally and from a vision and design standpoint and there has never been a better or more important time for that than right now. I am certainly no business expert but I do know a Hell of a lot about technology trends and based on what I’ve seen, I’d like to offer the following humble suggestions to RIM:

  • Fire Balsillie and Lazaridis and replace them with a new visionary who understands design and consumer products: They did indeed fire them (yeah yeah they “resigned”, that just means being fired while saving face) and their replacement (former COO Thorsten Heins) is another member of the old guard who was hand picked by them and whose stated vision is “I don’t think there is a drastic change needed.” Swing and a miss. If he was being promoted on a temporary basis until another replacement could be found I could understand it but apparently this is the guy they think will lead RIM to a triumphant return. Given the beating their stock price took today, it appears shareholders agree with me that this is facepalm worthy. The old guard’s arrogance is what put RIM in their current situation, doubling down on a strategy that doesn’t work is not the path to success. Look at the recording industry for an example of this. What the company needs is someone from the outside who has no vested interest or relationships with the current entrenched senior staff. Someone who isn’t afraid to jettison what isn’t working and make sweeping changes to the product line, the software and the overall creative vision. In short, as much as it pains me to say it, RIM needs their Steve Jobs. The new CEO of Nokia wasn’t afraid to undertake a strategy like this. He came in, promptly partnered with Microsoft for Windows Phone 7 and said they were dumping the Symbian operating system because it wasn’t working anymore. He pissed a lot of people off when he did that but the fruits of that decision are starting to show and almost everyone thinks Nokia will be better for it. People like this are out there, RIM needs one and fast.
  • Find the best designers you can find and spend whatever it takes to get them: Design in both the hardware and software experience is key to any consumer facing smartphone or tablet. RIM actually has some very good hardware engineers who know how to build comfortable, super reliable and relatively elegant hardware. It’s also bulky, utilitarian and frankly, kind of ugly. Their OS suffers similar problems. BlackBerry OS has made some aesthetic improvements since v6 but it still has a long way to go to compete with Android, Windows Phone 7 and iOS. Each of these systems has something that makes it unique and appealing from a visual and usability standpoint. For Android it’s widgets, for Windows Phone 7 it’s the metro tiles and for iOS, it’s the bubbly icons and menu elements. All of these are backed up by responsive controls and smooth animations which just make them feel good to use. BlackBerry needs its own variant of this, an identity for its user interface that’s attractive and unique to the platform. There is no shortage of amazing design talent out there and some of the best are at your competitors. Hire the best headhunters, let these designers name their price and give it to them as well as the creative freedom needed to do the next step.
  • Nuke the ecosystem and start fresh: I like the BlackBerry OS quite a bit but it’s long in the tooth and it’s simply not up to the task of enchanting the public in its current form. It’s true that they have announced BBX as the successor and it will be based on the polished QNX base that powers the PlayBook which is a step in the right direction. However, it still clings to a lot of the user interface and under the hood technologies from the old system and that’s not a big enough change. RIM made a smart investment when they bought QNX and putting their kernel under the hood is a good idea but everything else (and I mean everything else) about the BlackBerry experience needs to be wiped out and redone from a blank piece of paper. Design new phones, design a new tablet, design a whole new OS with a whole new interface, give them powerful guts (a really good camera would help too), pre-load them with really snazzy apps and for the love of everything, ditch the current naming convention that relies on boring adjectives and nouns and worse yet, indistinguishable numbers. I’ve been a user of your products for years and I can’t keep them all straight.
  • Make good developer tools and court the community: I don’t write software but I know people who do and the chief complaint I hear about BlackBerry versus other platforms is that the developer tools suck hard. They’re not easy to use, the reliance on Java hinders performance and cross-platform portability and App World is a headache to use for both developers and end users. RIM has made some statements lately they they know they haven’t been as good towards developers as they should have been (at least they’re finally admitting it) but their solution seems to be the Android emulation layer they’re pushing as a cornerstone of BBX, rather than writing all new, intuitive tools for their own platform. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Sure, making BBX able to run Android code sounds good because it gives them instant access to the existing Android app ecosystem and developer community but there are problems. Firstly Android software is designed for phones with large, long touch screens. The only model RIM sells that has one is the BlackBerry Torch. My new Bold 9900 has a touch screen but it’s small and square, not long and rectangular. That means most Android software won’t fit on it and asking developers to design a version of their UI for one phone’s very different screen size is a fool’s errand. Secondly BBX will not run Android apps natively, it will do so through emulation meaning that the BlackBerry will essentially pretend it’s an Android phone, at least as far as the app is concerned. Emulation by its very nature is much slower because the app essentially is being “translated” in real time as it runs. It also often introduces compatibility problems as many developers will use unique programming tricks to squeeze extra power out of a device and emulators often can’t interpret these tricks properly. There’s no way RIM can overcome these problems without either putting processors in their devices that far outweigh what’s in current Android devices (thus making theirs too expensive) or spending an inordinate amount of developer time and user hassle keeping the emulation layer current and super optimised. That’s not worth it and those resources are clearly better spent developing top notch tools for your own platform, rather than trying to piggyback off someone else’s as a band aid solution. Once they have the tools, the next step is to court the community to write native versions of their software for your platform. How do you do that? Give them hardware and if necessary, money. Find the most popular app and game developers on iOS and Android, give them free phones and tablets to develop with, give them a robust and well staffed support and community system and if that isn’t enough, offer to fund the BlackBerry versions of their titles. Consider going to major middleware providers like Unity and Epic Games and offer to co-fund development of BlackBerry editions of their technology. You might even want to consider buying yourselves a couple of high profile exclusives. Ask Kairosoft, Halfbrick or if you must, Rovio how much it would take to make their next projects exclusive to BlackBerry.
  • Market like you’ve never marketed before: Your current ads are confusing, don’t really preach the merits of your products beyond quick shots and really just show supposedly famous people (who really no one’s heard of) using them. That’s not good enough. People by and large don’t want to buy your stuff because a celebrity was paid to say it’s good. People want to buy your stuff because it looks cool. Every Apple commercial is just a narrator talking over (and sometimes not even that) someone doing cool stuff with their products up close. Don’t sell who uses your stuff, sell why those people and the ones watching want to use your stuff.

All of these suggestions are going to cost a lot of money, this I know. It will involve tapping a lot of the cash RIM has left and likely taking on some debt too. This is also probably a two or three year plan at least. Until it can be implemented, they’ll simply have to try to make due with keeping their current base of business and cash-strapped students happy to stay afloat. No one ever claimed rebooting a failing company was cheap or easy. This is a risky endeavour and should it fail, it will definitely kill the company. However, things aren’t working now and if the choice is to burn out fighting or bleed to death in the corner, I think the former is preferable and will leave a much better legacy. If RIM is going to do this, it needs to do it while it has cash in the bank, not while it’s gasping for air. Such a strategy would be the company’s last push but should it succeed, it will put them squarely back in the smartphone and tablet fight and could catapult them to a high point again. It’s something that will go down as one of the high tech industry’s biggest blunders or biggest turnaround success stories.

RIM has an impressive past behind it that will always be admired but the past is not how you make money and it isn’t how you satisfy investors. The smartphone and tablet space needs more competition, not less and dammit, we have some huge technology innovators in Canada, we should be a big part of that! The question now is, does RIM let old thinking continue to drive them into the ground or are they will to let the past be just that and embark on a new potential path to redemption and future success? You guys can save yourselves, it’s just a question of whether you have the balls to seize the chance while you can afford it. Step up and start a revolution!

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