What We Can Really Learn From Apple vs. RIM

An article in the Globe and Mail purports to tell us what lessons Canadian companies can learn from Apple and RIM. Sadly, the article doesn’t really offer much in the way of “lessons”, mainly just comparing financial data. The author also prattles on about chess as a business metaphor, which is flawed in my mind. No market is just two competitors going head-to-head. Few sports or game analogies will hold well for this discussion, simply because there is a field of competitors, and all of them are playing each other simultaneously. Golf might be the closest, if you view the course as the market, but even that has problems. Needless to say, using chess seemed rather pointless, and wasn’t really used very effectively in the piece.

One of the final paragraphs says that “The game between RIM and Apple is hardly over”, which sadly is not true. Like the Calgary Flames making the playoffs, RIM isn’t done, but the odds of RIM’s survival are sadly rather grim. But what about real lessons? What can Canadian entrepreneurs learn from these two companies?

Talent and Imagination Not An Issue

RIM, like many other Canadian technology companies, has some very smart and very imaginative people. They are the equal of any technologists anywhere in the world. Despite it’s stagnation, the Blackberry was once one of the more advanced pieces of technology you could buy. This isn’t unusual. Consider some of the other great Canadian technologies and inventions that have been built over the years. We have made great advanced in space and space-based communications technology. We have one of the premier manufacturers of aircraft and aviation simulators in Canada. Through BNR and Nortel, we made great strides in advancing purely electronic and digital phone switches. Montreal boasts one of the larger communities of game developers, with major studios for companies like Electronic Arts located there. Some of the ground-breaking work done at Pixar is based on computer animation techniques developed at the University of Calgary. While not necessarily a great testament, there are a tremendous number of Canadians working, living and succeeding in the Silicon Valley.

So, clearly, any issue RIM has isn’t due to a lack of skill or imagination by the technologists that make Blackberry happen. What was built, was built well.

RIM’s Problem Not Uniquely Canadian

The problems facing RIM are not unique to Canadian companies. Quite frankly, with their international base, “being Canadian” was cool but they were essentially an international company. The issues for RIM are very similar to problems being faced by two of their competitors: Microsoft and Nokia. All three of them have suffered the same fate at the hands of Apple and Google. All were once at the top of the heap in mobile technology. All of them once had the lead in some portion of the mobile computing market. All of them lost it, and lost it for similar reasons (assumed their positions were unassailable, too much looking inward and assuming their solution was what people really wanted, underestimated the value of a vibrant app and content ecosystem).

Yes, there can be challenges being a Canadian company, but they aren’t necessarily what you think they are. Access to talent isn’t as big an issue as some would suggest. Access to start-up capital is, at least here in Calgary.  I have heard similar stories from people in other cities, so I don’t believe this is a unique problem to southern Alberta. Beyond that, Canadian companies have access to global distribution systems, and can develop a global presence. Being a Canadian company isn’t an impediment for the most part.

So, The Lessons?

Simple: know the customer, anticipate what they want, and show meaningful value. It’s about a product that delights the customer. It’s about a product that’s useful, and that is perceived as value for the money. What does that translate into for smartphones and mobile computing? It means more than just industrial design (although that helps). It is about the user experience, and the ecosystem. Having the fastest, biggest or bestest means nothing in mobile computing if all you can do (or all people think you can do) is e-mail, contacts, calendars and phone calls. It isn’t about having the “apps people need”. It’s about having the “apps people want”. Sure, most people are going to install Kindle, Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare on their iPhones. Yes, those apps are on Blackberry and Windows Phone as well. But people want to know that they don’t have to just live with the 1 or 2 Twitter clients your platform has. They want to know that they have 6, 10 or 100 of them to choose from, even if they never intend on buying them. Having the choice feels good. It makes the platform more desirable.

RIM (and Nokia and Microsoft) have done none of those. Yes, the new Nokia is a sharp looking phone. Industrial design isn’t enough, by itself. It isn’t as if most of the Android phones are there are all that attractive, but they are “okay”, enough that people are buying lots of them. And it isn’t that RIM’s packaging is hideous. It is just dated. It looks too similar to Blackberries we’ve seen over the past decade. But where Blackberry stumbles, and where Windows Phone’s story is a bit weak, is on apps and content. Simply put: iPhone and Android have more. Lots more. Lots and lots more. It doesn’t matter about their quality or usefulness. What matters is there is a lot of choice.

The Real Lesson

Don’t assume that where you are now is where you need to be tomorrow. If you look inward, it is with a critical eye to better understand what could be improved, changed or excised. Look outward, pay attention to your customers, and be prepared to adapt and change. The world won’t adapt to you. You have to adapt to the world.

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2 thoughts on “What We Can Really Learn From Apple vs. RIM

  1. RIM has the most secure systems and it doesn’t look like that is going to change. This will always appeal to people.

    Though I agree RIM hasn’t made the best decisions recently, as you said in your post about the Playbook.

    • It depends on what areas of security you are talking about. When it comes to on-device security, Blackberry and iOS aren’t all that far apart. Android (with it’s lack of sandboxing for apps) still has work on that area. But iOS offers remote wipe and remote locking, nearly identical to what a BB can do.

      Remote access to services (specifically push e-mail for BES/BIS vs. IMAP or ActiveSync) again isn’t remarkably different for either Android or iOS. Both use similar levels of encryption (or can if they are configured properly). Both are dependent on IT staff setting up something properly, but people depend on RIM to do their job. So far, RIM has done a very good job on securing their systems, but unfortunately, that is no guarantee they won’t make a mistake or an exploit won’t be found.

      At best, iOS (and to a more limited extend, Android) are only slightly less secure that BlackBerry in a few areas, but in key areas they are virtually identical. Yes, the early days of security in iOS were substantially worse than BlackBerry, but Apple hasn’t been sitting still, offering improved security and remote management of devices. What few gaps exist are going to be filled over time, because Apple knows it is in their best interest to retain the enterprise market share they have managed to capture. Android will also catch up, simply because the enterprise market will expect it.

      Security isn’t an area which is a significant competitive barrier. Enterprise customers expect certain standards to be followed, so it isn’t like other technology areas where competitors can gain some potentially insurmountable advantage, protected by things like patents.

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