My BlackBerry Bold 9900 has been buzzing since the earliest hours this morning, and its continued to buzz with news of Research in Motions stunningly steep decline. As I write this, the device rests in my shirt pocket and continues to buzz.
The news from RIM is sobering at the very least. In a call with analysts during the evening of March 29, CEO Thorsten Heins said that sales were off more than 20 percentmuch worse than analysts had predicted. Heins also announced the departure of former co-CEO Jim Balsillie, CTO David Tach and COO Jim Rowan.
In a sudden purge, Heins has cleared the executive suite of the source of some of RIMs problems. Unfortunately, RIMs problems go far beyond the three people who got the ax March 29. RIMs fundamental problems are twofold. The first is the failure to innovate, and the second is the failure to understand their markets. Added to this mix should be a secondary problem, which is failure to execute. These are serious problems for any organization, but in a market as competitive as the smartphone business, they could be fatal.
RIM makes wonderful email and messaging devices. This is why I persuaded the folks at eWEEK to buy my first BlackBerry Curve back in the days when I was an employee. Since then, as Ive built my business, Ive continued to depend on those features. But the world of smartphones has grown far beyond email and messaging. Today, the best smartphones have beautifully designed touch-screens, can handle a wide variety of media and content effortlessly, have thoughtfully designed interfaces with (sometimes) superb ergonomics, and they do e-mail. The BlackBerry has a nice touch-screen.
Todays Best Smartphones Have Beautifully Designed Touch-Screens
And that, in short, is the problem. RIM came late to the whole touch-screen concept, and when it tried, it did a lousy job of it. So it tried again and then again. The touch-screen on the PlayBook was great (too bad the product was half-finished on launch). The touch-screen on the 9900 is really nice, but how long have these interfaces been out? For years? BlackBerrys are only now getting there.
But even now, the things that I like about the Bold 9900, the nice keyboard, the push delivery for email, the easy setup and the performance, arent the things that most users have as their highest priority. I use my BlackBerry as an important part of my business, but I dont use it for recreation, for reading, browsing the Web or any of the other things that people want in their smartphones. I have an iPad for that.
So while RIM did a very nice job of delivering exactly what I wanted in a messaging device, it didnt deliver what the world wanted in a smartphone. The company just kept delivering the same old thing, over and over. When I hold this new BlackBerry smartphone in my hand, the experience isnt all that different than it was when I first held a BlackBerry, back in the days when it was little more than a very effective two-way pager with a click-wheel.
Worse, even when RIM did have the right answer, it failed to execute or it failed to understand the market. Or both. How else do you explain the PlayBook with its wonderful hardware and barely functional OS? How do you explain the continued failures of the BlackBerry servers that led to global mail and messaging delivery outages? How do you explain the delivery of what RIM hoped would be BlackBerrys best OS yet, but allowed BBOS 7 to arrive with few functional apps or with features that didnt work until a major upgrade months later?
Through this combination of failures, RIM not only discouraged sales to new users in an incredibly hot market, but it sent the message to its existing users that the company couldnt be depended on when they needed it the most. Now, as a BlackBerry user for years, I have to ask myself whats next. Will I need to change my business to work with another mobile platform? Should I tough it out and hope that RIM survives in some form?
And if the time comes to change, to what platform should I move my business? All have their compromises, as does RIM.
Should I choose Apple? It will integrate with my existing email services, and I can sync it with Outlook. But I havent found a good way to perform mass deletes of those hundreds of emails I get every day, but dont want to read. Besides, none of the carriers that have iPhones actually service the area in the suburban wilderness just outside Washington, D.C., where I live and work.
Should I choose Android? If so, how will I know which of the nearly infinite varieties of this fragmented OS will be supported and updated over the years? And how will I know which device gets past the shoddy build quality that seems to affect so many of these devices?
Or maybe Windows Phone 7? As nice as those Nokia phones are, and as slick as the interface is, it still doesnt let you sync with Outlook. That eliminates it from the running.
So, perhaps, the only answer is to hope that Heins and RIM can get their acts together, learn to innovate and execute, and keep the company alive and growing. Maybe they can.