RIM Needs A Real Product Person

The latest round of silliness for RIM has manifested itself in the Porsche Design Blackberry. The device, unveiled today at an event in Toronto, is a $1,900 Blackberry. Other than the industrial design, it offers the same functionality as a standard Blackberry Curve or Bold: the same tired, out-of-day Blackberry 7 operating system, same basic internal specs. Basically, it is all gingerbread and gold plating. Yes, there is no question this is a gorgeous device. But this isn’t something that a real product person would be bragging about.

What makes this device so laughable is how Thorsten Heins, RIM’s current CEO, tries to use it as a way to show “what Blackberry is capable of”. He is expecting this thing to create “… a lot of halo effect”. Both of these are statements of someone who is clearly not, and has never been, a “product” person, nor one in the market of disposable consumer products.

Value Of “Halo” Debatable

People in the automotive world talk about “halo cars”. These are cars that sell in tiny numbers, but sit in the showroom as a lure to potential customers. The thinking is that someone walks into the dealership, curious about a high-end machine (think Corvette ZR1, Dodge Viper, Lexus LF-A), but what they end up buying is something more pedestrian. Some in the auto industry speak as if a “halo car” is a necessity, despite the fact that most of the high-volume and profitable nameplates don’t have one (Honda, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, VW are all lacking halo cars under those brands). Needless to say, the actual value of a “halo car” could reasonably be questioned. Not everyone in the industry buys into the concept.

But that’s for big-ticket purchases. Most people own their car 3-4 years, sometimes longer. They represent tens of thousands of dollars out of our pockets to acquire, and then hundreds or thousands of dollars more to operate and maintain. Smartphones are not big investments of our money. They are anywhere from free to a few hundred dollars. We replace them approximately every 18-24 months. They cost money to use (for airtime and data), but zero for maintenance. You aren’t worried about oil and fluid changes, replacement of consumable components like filters, or all of the other maintenance items that go along with owning a car. You buy a smartphone, you use it, and in a short period of time replace it with another. It isn’t exactly a disposable razor, but it is certainly less durable than a car.

Halo products like this hyper-expensive Blackberry don’t make sense. First off, it won’t be sitting in every store that sells Blackberries. There tens of thousands of locations that sell RIM products of some kind. There are typically only 2,000-3,000 dealerships of all kinds, and maybe 1,500-2,000 for a single brand. You can afford to build one or two halo cars per dealership. Imagine trying to stock every franchised Telus, Rogers, Bell, Fido, Virgin, Koodo, Wind, etc. store and kiosk, plus the big-box stores (Staples, Walmart, BestBuy, FutureShop, etc). Plus all the specialists and one-offs. For a device that will sell, at best, in single-digit hundreds. You might get a curious few, but really, most people won’t care. Most won’t have even heard of the thing, except perhaps in mocking tones.

A Poor Way To Show Capability

Beyond this “halo” nonsense, how does this phone show what “Blackberry is capable of”? What, you don’t think people believe that you can design a custom case and keyboard for it? People know that any device can be made to appear differently. It doesn’t take much of genius to understand that you can replace the skin with something else. There are two problems I see with this little stunt.

First, it wasn’t done by RIM. It was done by Porsche. This doesn’t show what “Blackberry is capable of”. It shows what people who actually have some skill at industrial design are capable of. And it demonstrates that they don’t work for RIM.

Which brings us to the second problem: if RIM is actually capable of selling attractive products, then why the heck aren’t they? Does this mean that RIM has been holding back for the past decade, and hasn’t actually been showing their best work? Quite frankly, if I were a shareholder (and I’m not, for the record), I would be incensed. If RIM does have the skills to design a beautiful product, but they just haven’t bothered, then why are any of these executives running this company? Given the dire straits RIM is in right now, it’s a little late to find out “gee, we actually could have been building good-looking products”.

A Real Product Person Would Be Executing

A real product person doesn’t pull a stunt like this. A real product person designs attractive products. Further to that, real product person makes the thing attractive “all the way down”. It isn’t just about the exterior and the appearance. It is about the underlying pieces. Many Samsung and Motorola Android phones are designed by real product people. The iPhone is the result of real product people doing their job. The Ford Mustang, the Kia Optima, the BMW 3-series are all products from the minds of real product people. They don’t just talk about good product, and show off concepts and one-offs. They don’t just do their best work on the exclusive products. They apply their skill and imagination to everything they build, from toasters to airliners.

This little bauble is, at best, an interesting marketing gimmick. It might get RIM some positive attention for a brief period of time. More likely, though, all it will get is ridicule and negative attention. I can hear the usual metaphors and similes now: rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, fiddling while Rome burns, etc. This little stunt was a distraction, and it could be viewed as an attempt distract people from the substantive problems RIM currently has. RIM has a serious problem. Spending time and money designing an expensive machine that few, if any, will actually buy isn’t exactly a prudent use of cash, even if it isn’t that much when you look at the big picture. It’s not the amount of money that was spent, it was that it was spent at all. Sure, in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really cost that much to design, but if it actually pays for itself, I will be shocked.

Get Back To Work

RIM needs to stop wasting time on things that aren’t going to move the company forward. Focus the time and effort on things that might actually help the company, or at least salvage something from the impending wreckage. And stop doing things that make the people who do work for you look bad. In many ways, I feel sorry for the design folks that work at RIM. This thing is a slap in the face, in some ways: see what we could be building if you guys had any talent? Not exactly a morale booster in my mind.

Focus on the job at hand. Spending time and money on expensive baubles is a distraction. There is enough to worry about right now.

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