There is a piece on eWeek that has 10 steps they believe will save RIM and keep it competitive. I agree with many of them (ditch the co-CEO structure, kill PlayBook, build on services), but I think the eWeek piece still misses some fundamental issues, or falls short.
Where They Fall Short
First, going to a single CEO isn’t enough. Whoever that single CEO is, it should not be either Balsillie or Lazaridis. Both have had their day, and I commend them on what they managed to accomplish. They did a far better job in building the smartphone market in North America, in many ways, than either Palm or Microsoft did. RIM didn’t invent the smartphone, but they showed how business could use it to a meaningful advantage. A big part of the that was Blackberry Enterprise Server, which meant for better and tighter integration with the Blackberry and the server side in ways that Treo or Windows Mobile just didn’t offer initially. However, RIM has rested on those laurels, and as the current products show, they (and their CEO’s) are acting is if the game really hasn’t changed. I agree with eWeek: RIM is relying on enterprise, but part of that is because their current CEO’s seem to only see the enterprise. The consumer space is a rather large blindspot, treated as if it is “enterprise lite” rather than a space that cares about different things from a smartphone.
The eWeek piece also suggests some changes to the Blackberry product line (drop to one Bold model, more focus on touch screens). I agree with the direction, but I think this idea falls short of the mark. Quite frankly, the Blackberry brand is damaged, and I think it is damaged beyond repair. If RIM is going to work on a new family of devices, in my mind they have to do a few things. First, they need a new brand, one that can be established as relevant and competitive to iOS and Android. They need to stop thinking of these things as handsets and start to think of them as small computers. Until they can get past the blindspot, they can alter the internals all they want, they will still end up with products that seem to be “more of the same”. RIM has to be brave enough to abandon some of what they’ve done, because what they are doing now isn’t helping them.
The slideshow also suggests that RIM start to address negative publicity. The implication is that RIM should basically “defend itself”. The problem here is that they really can’t. The concerns in the open letter are real. They point to fundamental, structural flaws in the corporation and its culture. The problems and issues people (like me) are pointing out are real, not perceived. RIM has lacklustre products. Trying to defend the indefensible is a futile gesture, moreso now than even in the past. RIM’s best defence would be an exciting and compelling line of products and services. You don’t recover marketshare with press releases and appearances on CNBC, you do it with products people want to buy. People aren’t leaving RIM because of perceived problems, they are leaving because they don’t want their products anymore.
No Discussion on Ecosystem
What the eWeek piece missed entirely is any discussion about the ecosystem, specifically content and apps. Yes, Blackberry Enterprise Server is a great piece of technology, and RIM should look at expanding it to work with more than just their devices. Stop trying to be exclusive, and start to be inclusive. But without content and apps, it won’t matter. Both iOS and Android succeed because they have large and interesting catalogs of apps, and lots of easily obtained content. RIM doesn’t have that. No amount of “better” hardware or software is going to matter without the ecosystem. Windows Phone 7 is stumbling over this. This issue helped bring about the demise of WebOS. It is the reason the Playbook has floundered in the market. Consumers don’t buy technical specs, they buy devices that let them be productive, communicate and be entertained. This isn’t about having “enough” apps, it is about having a large selection of apps, no matter how much the quality may vary. Consumers like to have choice, even if most will stick with the mainstream or most well-known apps. Fore example, it isn’t about having just the official Facebook app on your device. Consumers want to see and know there are 8, 10 or 100 different apps they can choose from to get at Facebook. Most will probably just take the official one from Facebook, but enough will choose the others because they offer something different or more compelling. They want choice. People want games. They want TV shows and movies. They want books and magazines. And they want lots of different places they can get them from on their device. This is a giant and glaring hole in the Blackberry story, and it is hurting them on the consumer side.
5 Things RIM Should do
In the end, I don’t think there are 10 things that RIM needs to do, there are really only 5. First, not only ditch the co-CEO structure, but replace them entirely and find a new one with a vision and the strength of personality to execute on it. This one won’t be easy, and I expect a couple of iterations before someone is found that can step up and lead RIM back into relevance.
Second, ditch the Blackberry brand and build a new family of devices, using a single operating system, and with a new brand. Include in this devices that don’t use phone technology. I would see 3 types of devices: 1 with the traditional screen and keyboard, one purely touchscreen and one tablet. I would envision 2 types for each, one with 3G/4G support and one with just Wifi (think iPhone and iPod Touch). Yes, that’s 6 devices,but they would share some core components like CPU, GPU, radios and storage. All would run a single operating system, one that allows the user to upgrade over time to get fixes and new features. Plan on OS fixes at least 3 or 4 times per year, and a single major release once per year.
Third, work with publishers, music labels and app developers to build a compelling and rich ecosystem, one geared to consumers, but one that can still satisfy the enterprise market. The new devices will need a rich ecosystem to make them useful. Having incredible CPU performance, tons of storage and vivid screens doesn’t mean a thing if the customers can’t do things with the devices. This is about engaging developers by helping them write apps. It is about keeping some consistency in the runtime environment, and giving some choice in terms of implementation technologies. It is about showing labels and publishers that you can build a large enough customer base, and that your devices will protect their media.
Forth, build on the already capable services side, and expand Blackberry Enterprise Server, Blackberry Messenger and Blackberry Internet Service to include iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Offer a modest, free level of service, and then offer pay services to get more (storage, bandwidth, whatever). Build on their experience in this area, and bring these services to other platforms to expand the brand’s reach and visibility. Apple eventually had to add support for Microsoft Exchange, even though they still compete head-to-head with Microsoft in other areas. Apple is adding built-in support for Twitter and more support for social services that Apple doesn’t own or control. Think inclusive, rather than exclusive.
The last, and biggest, goes hand-in-hand with a new CEO and new devices: stop treating these devices has phones with smarts. They are small computers. In fact, stop calling them smartphones. Stop talking about the “smartphone market” in company materials. In that vein, no more OS versions tied to a particular hardware model or hardware generation. New operating system versions should at least work on the current generation and one generation back (and further if possible). This means hiring people who design computers, and not phones, for a living, both hardware and software. You still need people who understand how to build these smaller devices (and RIM has that talent in spades). But without a mindset shift in how these devices are built, and how the software is built and maintained, RIM is doomed to be a handset maker who happens to make smartphones.
Yes, these are radical changes, but the industry has seen radical change. The mobile computing market had a significant shift when the first iPhone came out, continued to shift significantly as Android gained traction, and jumped again when the iPad hit the market. The history of mobile computing is littered with the casualties of these jumps and shifts: Windows Mobile, Symbian, PalmOS, WebOS and a host of others. Windows Phone continues to flounder and splash about, never really gaining any traction. RIM’s ship is taking on water, and it isn’t from a few small holes in the hull, it is from great rents and tears in the fundamental structure of what RIM does.
The eWeek piece is worth a read, but it is mainly about modest changes and moderate shifts in direction (but the piece is not, keeping the nautical theme, about rearranging deck chairs. They do propose more than cosmetic change). This is not the time for modest change and half-measures. The Google/Motorola deal signals, in my mind, that this game is going to get a lot harder, and that a second leader will emerge to challenge Apple in terms of setting industry direction. Now is the time for bold steps to try to take back the leadership role RIM used to have. RIM might as well bet the farm, but they have to do it with capable leadership and by bolstering their already talented pool of people. Without it, RIM will become about the ride to the bottom as they slip beneath the waves and join Symbian and WebOS in the pantheon of “could have been” mobile platforms.