January 31, 2012

RIM's Spiral to Oblivion

I can almost hear the announcer now: "Hang tight -- this is going to be a fast ride from this point on." While it may seem like this is referring to some theme-park ride in fact it's not. It's a ride of a different sort, and all of us have been on it for a while, but it's going downhill. Fast. 

We're talking of course about Research In Motion (RIM).  The company that helped create and usher in the modern smartphone device (I'd credit RIM and Palm with starting the whole movement collectively, and Apple for making it mainstream).  They really were first to market with the concept of an always-connected device. At that time it was a 2-way pager with a  keyboard. People could page or message you and you could send text messages back. Sound familiar? Kind of like what we do everyday with our cell phones and SMS text messages? Well in 1999 it wasn't so familiar. In fact it was new and novel. Emergency workers, doctors, and then IT professionals flocked to the device. CEOs and management-types too. It was the most-loved device in the world, and it carried that title proudly for years.  

Then came the challengers to the throne. Those that thought they could do what RIM did, but in a phone. Palm was first, initially with the Palm VII which had an antenna for two-way communication.  They then followed up with their expansion into cell phone/PDA combinations by introducing the Treo phones.  

None of this was especially good news for RIM, but in a competitive market you have to be ready for people trying to emulate your success and take your market share. Throughout all of Palm's advances, RIM held their own. There was something that the company had that others didn't: some form of coolness, of cachet, of being an innovator. It was very similar to what we now attribute to Apple. They quietly did their thing, coming out with new products, slightly new form factors, and proceeding cautiously and conservatively. This turned out to be a double-edged sword as it initially helped keep their established fan base but also proved to be it's undoing as others came out with new solutions, new products and better ways of doing things. 

And this is where Apple came in and changed everything with the introduction of their first iPhone in 2007. From that point on RIM was stuck trying to play catch up, as their industry-leading device and platform suddenly began to look very, very, old. Compared to the iPhone's usability and operating system, the Blackberry with it's non-touch screen and trackball looked either quite cute and old-fashioned or downright ancient. One by one users began to migrate to the iPhone. Then, as the iPhone began adding specific apps, corporations began to see how it could replace and even improve upon, the Blackberry. When Google introduced their Android operating system in 2007 it may as well have been one of the final nails in Blackberry's coffin. Now there were two major smartphone platforms, each significantly better and more robust than the Blackberry. 

Late in the game attempts to catch up weren't met with much success either. You have to give RIM points for the attempt, but with such product introductions as the Blackberry Storm, with it's problem-laden click-screen that you have to believe was rushed to market, then later with the Blackberry Playbook, a tablet device which didn't even have calendar and email functions, you have to see that they were floundering. The business version of thowing up your hands in despair and taking a few last hail mary shots, hoping one of them will stick. 

Hard to believe that only two and a half years ago, already battling both the iPhone and Android, in August 2009 Fortune Magazine named RIM as the fastest growing company in the world. If we had to put a definitive mark of demarcation on RIM's lifeline, it would have to be here.  It's decline from this point has been swift. But then again, that's what this whole technology sector is about, right? Change. Disruptive. Competitive. You blink and everything's change. And everything has indeed changed for RIM.

Which brings us to today. RIM, still alive but on life support, is still trying new strategies. They've recently shown their two CEOs to the door, and appointed a new one. While it remains to be seen what kind of life he can re-inject into the company, things aren't looking good. Not when you consider that everything that's done from this point on is being watched very closely for signs of further troubles or a miraculous turnaround.  The latest ad strategy doesn't seem to help very much.  Users want fresh, new devices. They want leading-edge applications. They want devices which are easy to use. And, while the world does indeed seem to love superheroes, I'm not sure this is the tactic RIM should be taking.

It remains to be seen if RIM can pull this off, but I have to say this PR campaign seems misguided.

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