It hasn't been the best couple weeks for Research In Motion.
Despite hints of respectable sales numbers for its newly released PlayBook tablet, the company faced substantial criticism from tech pundits over the device's lack of applications and (some claim) unfinished feel. On top of that, new rumors suggest that Sprint's 4G-enabled version of the PlayBook has been delayed until further notice-something that could come as a substantial public-relations blow to RIM.
Lower-than-expected BlackBerry smartphone sales also forced RIM to dial back its earnings forecast for the fiscal 2012 first quarter. An aging portfolio of BlackBerry devices, including the Bold and the Storm, has led to a noticeable softness in device shipments.
Then came this week's BlackBerry World conference in Orlando, Fla. Pundits, analysts and reporters came expecting RIM to unveil a radical roadmap, including several new BlackBerry OS 7 smartphones to be followed, at a later date, by "superphones" based on the same QNX operating system currently at work in the PlayBook.
RIM played it safe, however, and unveiled the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and 9930, thin and powerful devices running BlackBerry OS 7-not exactly the massive refresh that many attendees expected. RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis also suggested QNX smartphones wouldn't actually appear until sometime in 2012.
"There were no clear indications of when QNX would finally arrive," Jefferies & Co. analyst Peter Misek wrote in a May 3 research note, "and we believe the new moniker signals a longer-than-expected commitment to OS 7 before transitioning to a QNX-based platform."
That sort of lag time could make it more difficult for RIM to offer a robust response to Google Android and Apple's iOS, both of which are evolving at a rapid pace. But it doesn't have to mean the end of RIM. Here are some steps the company could take to reverse this negative trend.
Partner Up (But Don't Sell)
One of the highlights of BlackBerry World was the announcement that Microsoft's Bing will become the preferred search and maps application for the BlackBerry. Closer to the end of 2011, the two companies will apparently collaborate to integrate Bing on the BlackBerry operating-system level, making it a core component of RIM's devices.
Microsoft and RIM have already made a deal to port the former's cloud services, notably Office 365, onto the BlackBerry and the PlayBook tablet, with RIM's BlackBerry Servers connecting "cloud to cloud" with Microsoft's data centers to host Office 365 data on user's servers.
There have also been rumblings that RIM is preparing to open its devices to Android applications. This would radically increase the number of applications available to the BlackBerry and the PlayBook, and help blunt criticism that RIM can't compete in that area with Apple's iOS and other manufacturers embracing Android.
In other words, partnerships will allow RIM to integrate proven functionality into its offerings, without needing to spend the resources and time to home-grow its own equivalents. This doesn't mean, however, that RIM should consider offering itself up as an acquisition target-the more competition in the smartphone and tablet ecosystem, the better for consumers.
RIM has two CEOs and three COOs. At least on the CEO side, that power-sharing structure has been in place for 20 years, so it's obviously a model with potential to work. But with RIM flailing for direction, and under assault from multiple fronts, it may be time for the company to consider a C-suite restructuring that makes it strategically lean and mean.
Faster, Faster, Faster
RIM is making a substantial bet on its QNX operating system. As previously mentioned, however, it's a bit of an open question when smartphones loaded with the OS will appear on store shelves. To better compete with Apple and Google's manufacturing partners, and send a clear message that RIM has indeed entered "a new era," the company should focus on speeding up its roadmap for QNX deployment. Why not the end of 2011, or the very beginning of 2012, instead of the (rumored) mid-2012?
Build Tablet Momentum
Despite some negative reviews, the PlayBook is apparently attracting consumer and business interest. RIM already plans to add an array of new features to the tablet, including native video chat and email, as well as a Facebook application. To build momentum for the platform, RIM should focus on issuing these sorts of updates as quickly as possible (while ensuring they remain largely issue-free).
On a similar note, the faster that RIM can have a 3G or 4G tablet on the market, the better to compete against rivals like the iPad and the Motorola Xoom, both of which feature built-in 3G. While the PlayBook's combination of WiFi and BlackBerry Bridge make it a secure device for businesspeople, the lack of 3G or 4G is a potential deal-killer for customers who want to carry around a tablet without needing to tether it to a BlackBerry or other smartphone.