RIM: Same song, different verse…

A little bit louder and a little bit worse? RIM’s newest versions of the Torch may boast an updated operating system, and better hardware, but I think it shows that RIM just doesn’t get it. Sure, the software is updated. Yes, the hardware is better. But the success for iOS and Android isn’t about the hardware. The software is part of the equation, but their success is more than that. It is about the ecosystem. It is about having something more to do with the device than read mail and make calls. Are there games available for Blackberry? Yes, but their uptake appears to have been paltry. Are there productivity apps? Social networking apps? Again, yes, but in very small numbers. It doesn’t matter that only a handful of the hundreds of thousands of apps available on iOS are used regularly. It’s the fact that there are hundreds of thousands to choose from that are attracting people to the device. Android’s catalog is very respectable now, and while app purchases on Android are still lighter than iOS, people are buying the apps. Adding faster processors, a dedicated graphics chip and RFID (which nothing meaningful supports yet) won’t solve RIM’s basic problem, which is that people don’t want Blackberries anymore. I have a colleague whose Blackberry finally packed it in, and his next purchase will either be an Android phone or an iPhone. He has decided that he no longer wants a Blackberry, and when it comes to technology, he is pretty conservative and reserved.

RIM appears to be betting a lot on the future QNX-based phones, due to arrive some time next year. Again, better hardware and software can’t hurt, but if they end up looking like “better Blackberries”, it won’t be enough. In my mind, RIM needs to do three things. First, it needs to improve the content for their devices: apps, music, video, books, etc. That means working more closely with lots of developers to build a significant catalog of apps. It isn’t enough that they have one or two of “everything you would need”. They need dozens or hundreds of apps in different categories to give people choice, even if they end up settling largely one a small handful. People want to know there is variety, even if they don’t partake of it. The same goes for media and other content: lots and more of it. This isn’t about making enterprise customers happy. This is about retail consumers, and they want choice, first and foremost.

Second, I think its time that Blackberry, as a brand, goes away. The name has recognition, but of the wrong kind. For me, it conjures up images of people in suits busy doing deals, of carefully managed enterprises unwilling to take risks and sticking with the tried-and-true. I don’t imagine a Blackberry in the hand of a 20-something person updating Facebook and Twitter, or in the hands of some teenager playing a first-person shooter game. The brand is also becoming associated with a smartphone platform that is on the way down, that is dying. The Blackberry brand has become more of a liability than an asset. It had its run, and now RIM needs to build a new brand, from scratch, that leaves the negative images behind. The new brand needs to be consumer friendly, but still acceptable to the enterprise crowd. But, the consumer needs to be the primary focus, and not the enterprise. It’s there that Apple and the Android manufacturers are making their mark, and making their money. Apple has been backing into the enterprise, through the demand and interest of retail consumers who want the device for work.

Third, and this is the big one, RIM needs to stop treating these things as “phones with smarts” and start looking at them as “small computers that happen to make phone calls”. Until they can make that cognitive and cultural leap, they are likely doomed to continued to decline and eventual disappearance. The “small computer” mentality also goes toward the issue with developers: they need to see a stable and predictable platform that has a future, not one where they have to make radical changes (or rewrite everything) just to take advantage of the next release. OS upgrades should be a continuum, not a break with the past each and every release. Each upgrade made eventually abandon older devices, but the consumer shouldn’t have to buy new hardware every time a new release of the operating system comes out.

Until RIM understands and embraces these new ideas, I don’t see them having a long-term future. They won’t go away tomorrow. Nokia has been dying a slow death for years, and will be around for many more years. But RIM, like Nokia, is becoming a shadow of their former selves. Trying to do what is, in effect, more of the same isn’t going to keep them around for the future. These new devices aren’t new in a way that matters to the consumer. From the consumer perspective, they look, feel and act just like the devices they aren’t interested in now. Consumers need to see something truly new, truly industry leading and very compelling. If the new devices don’t fit that, don’t expect RIM to see its fortunes improve. These ones don’t. The next ones had better.