So Why Do I Keep Beating Up On RIM?

It could be accused of being a RIM hater. I know I have published a lot of posts putting RIM in a negative light. I will admit that I am an Apple customer (don’t say fan, because I don’t have an unreserved or unabashed love for all things Apple. They have issues too). I use Macs, I own an iPhone and and an iPad. But I also use a Samsung Galaxy Tab for some things, use a Kindle (not just the app, the device), and I build software on Android, Linux and Windows as well as iOS and MacOS. I also do a lot of Java and some J2EE. I have owned and used Blackberries for many, many years. There was a time where I cared passionately about certain platforms. A long time ago, I was a Sun Acolyte, worshipping at the altar of SunOS and SPARC. But one day I realized that, at the end of they day, it is just a computer, and that level of passion should maybe be saved for something a bit more important. I was a “fanboi” at one point, but no longer.

But why pick on RIM? What have they done to deserve enmity rather than praise?

The biggest problem I have is that I believe there was a time that RIM could have had a chance. Back when the iPhone was still relatively new, and Android was just appearing on the scene, I envisioned a world that was split somewhat evenly between iPhone, Blackberry and Android. I fully expected RIM to be able to retain the enterprise market, and make some modest gains in the consumer market. I didn’t expect the iPhone to gain as much traction as it has in the enterprise. I’m not at all surprised at Android’s place in the world, given it can be had for cheap, and price becomes a big factor once you get past a certain point in the market. But RIM disappointed. There was a time where I truly believed there was a place for RIM, once upon a time.

But RIM fumbled the ball. They didn’t lose their way, the failed to see that the path changed direction. They failed to make a key psychological and philosophical leap, one I mentioned initially back in November of 2010. I think this is a important distinction that separates what Google and Apple have accomplished, when compared to companies like RIM and Nokia. What is that distinction?

Smartphones are not phones that are smart. They are small computers that happen to make phone calls.

In essence, it is whether you view these devices as “handsets” or “computers”. Google and Apple look at these devices as small computeres. Apple has, to date, taken it the furthest, offering iOS devices that have no calling capability whatsoever (iPad and iPod Touch). Google has gained some ground on the tablet side, but there is still a gap in the “small computer with no phone at all” part of the equation. To understand their philosophy, take a look at the language these companies use when they describe these devices. Listen to what they say. They are presented and described as highly portable computers. With Apple and Google, it is “personal computing” at a truly personal level. Being able to place a phone call or send some kind of message (text or otherwise) is only a small part of the equation.

On the flip side, listen to RIM: these are all “handsets”. They build custom-branded versions of their phone depending on the network (just like regular feature phones). The operating systems aren’t, for the most part, upgradeable to the next major release (just like regular feature phones). If you want the latest version of the Blackberry OS, you have to buy a whole new handset (just like regular feature phones). It is true that a lot of Android handset manufacturers work the same way, treating the devices as “handsets” and not small computers. Depending on your network, you may or may not be able to update the Android version in your phone or tablet. I have two that are stuck back at Android 2.2, because Samsung and my carrier won’t allow them to be upgraded. But that is the Android device manufacturers. They still have to try to reconcile their approach with Google’s overarching philosophy of mobile computing in your pocket.

RIM makes no attempt to view these devices as very personal and portable computers. Look at RIM’s recent commercials: they are just about communication. If you believe their commercials, all you can do with a Blackberry is make calls and send text messages. Nothing about entertainment, productivity, education or higher levels of communication. It’s all about phone calls and text messages. You want to know something? I can do that with a feature phone. If you believe the commercials, the only differentiator between a Blackberry and my old Motorola Razr V3 is that the Blackberry has a bigger screen, better keyboard and a better camera. According to these commercials, they both make calls and send text messages.

Contrast the Blackberry commercials to the iPhone commercials. With the iPhone, you can not only capture your memories with video and pictures, but you can be entertained. You can be informed. You can do more than just communicate, but even with communication, it isn’t just calls. Its about connecting, with sound and images, not just “talking”. The iPhone lets you be productive, be informed and be entertained. With Blackberry, we’ve had 2 commercials with music artists of some kind (and not actual musicians, just guys that decide what music to play at some kind of party-like event), and all they do is send and receive BBM messages. A 3rd commercial shows a guy in an open-air food market sending pictures of vegetables and talking about BBM messages. If that’s all the thing can do, then what else is it good for? The fact that you can also be informed, educated and entertained is never, ever discussed. The message is that a Blackberry is a very special-purpose device. The iPhone message is that it can do more. We know that’s not true. As a technologist, I know that a Blackberry can do more than just make calls and send messages. But the branding and marketing images are what people see, and that’s what will fix the product’s image in their minds.

The problem now is that I believe RIM is past the point of no return. They have too much downward momentum to be salvaged. At this point, its about minimizing the crash damage, not getting the craft back in the air. Its about keeping as many parts intact to salvage as much as possible for the shareholders. It will mean, unfortunately, that a lot of very smart and talented people will lose their jobs. Canada loses another one of those rare technology crown jewels that seem to appear so infrequently (but still do so, despite the ham-fisted good intentions of federal, provincial and municipal governments. Seriously, stop trying to help).

It is sad that their new CEO has to keep up the fiction that the company can be saved. He is making all the noises he is supposed to make, and doing all the things the script says should be done. But the shareholders, the analysts and the market in general sees through it. Some RIM fanatics may still be living in denial, and still think that RIM is in a strong position. “Just wait until BB10, it will kill the others and everyone will want to licence it”. “Just wait for the next Playbook, it will make the iPad look like a toy”. “Just wait for the next Torch/Bold/whatever”. But expecting a new operating system to make a difference, or more bland and uninspired hardware to turn the tide is naive and overly optimistic. RIM’s problems weren’t just their operating system or their hardware. There are Android phones out there with equally poor hardware and poor industrial design selling as well or better. Android is a pretty impressive system, but it isn’t perfect and it has its problems. Both Android and iOS are both technologically advanced, both have strengths and weaknesses, but they are not solely responsible for their success.

No amount of hardware or killer design was going to overcome one of the bigger weaknesses for RIM: the ecosystem. The iPhone outsold and outgrew Blackberry because of the ecosystem. Yes, the industrial design was a big draw. But the vast (and growing) catalog of apps and content was a bigger draw. Apple built a better ecosystem, and nurtured an environment that encouraged developers. RIM’s poor relationship with developers, coupled with a less-than-stable target platform, hampered it’s app store. Sure, there is at least one of everything you “need” on Blackberry App World, but I can go to the iTunes App Store or Android Market and get what I “want”. That’s a big difference. It allowed people to overlook Apple’s generally weaker and less capable hardware. People believed they could do more with the “lesser” iPhone than they could with the “more capable” Blackberry. Perception is reality, and RIM still has done nothing to change the perception.

Even RIM’s most recent attempt at salvaging the company could have had the potential to turn things around. Had they found a smart, dynamic and strong-willed outsider that was prepared to makeover the company, and one versed in consumer product, then they might have had a chance, even this late in the game. They needed to get someone who was prepared to make the unpopular decisions, force change from within, and work hard from without to rebuild the image and rebuild the company. That didn’t happen. Instead, RIM gets a finance-oriented board and a caretaker CEO. Instead of radical, life-saving and life-altering surgery, they get palliative care.

So, we can lament the “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. We can talk about what might have happened had RIM made a major change at the top two or three years ago. We can look at what might have happened in a scant month ago, with a truly new CEO from outside. We can discuss until we are blue in the face how “it might have been” had RIM put some effort into brand building, marketing, their ecosystem and creating excitement. But that’s over. Now, the best we can do is learn what we can from these events. We can hope the good people who work there can rise from the ashes and create other new and exciting things.

That doesn’t mean that it should be accepted quietly, and it doesn’t mean that the architects of the current state of affairs shouldn’t be called on the carpet. If I’m negative, it’s because I’m disappointed and perhaps a little angry. Instead of being a powerhouse in the mobile computing space, RIM became just another handset manufacturer that couldn’t figure it out. That’s sad, and unfortunately, my posts have (and probably will continue to) reflect that. I’m not negative because I don’t like them, and I certainly didn’t want them to fail. I’m unhappy because they could have been so much more.