RIM: A Company in Crisis


It has been a bad year for RIM. Its market share has tumbled; its growth rate lags those of their major competitors; and its latest products have been panned by both reviewers and the market. All this is compounded by the sense that the company is simply playing catch-up while competitors like Google and Apple release feature after feature and encroach on RIM’s once-impregnable enterprise turf.

RIM’s current predicament has been a long time coming and is the result of years of questionable decisions and deeply ingrained attitudes. The company is in the fight of its life, and its only hope of survival lies not in a killer product or two, but solving its core issues and laying the groundwork for a string of successful hits. So what are these core issues? Simply put: lack of vision, focus and polish, being too tied to the past, and not innovating aggressively enough.

Lack of Vision

Many companies have vision statements. At their best they clarify choices: when deeply ingrained in company culture, management, teams and individuals can pursue projects and make decisions with the vision in mind. RIM’s vision is muddled, and if one had to guess it’s little more than “Make mobile devices”. This is a huge impediment because the company needs to know what its vision of the future is in order to decide which ideas and products to focus on. This lack of vision also explains investors’ reactions to RIM’s latest sales readjustment: if you don’t know where the company is going and what its end goals are, how do you evaluate its choices and direction? Lack of vision also has important long-term ramifications: it puts RIM in constant catch-up mode. Without a sense of what the ideal user experience should be you simply don’t know where to innovate – you iteratively improve and then attempt to catch-up when disruptive change occurs.

Lack of Focus

Who is RIM’s core customer? Is it the enterprise or the Average Joe? Is it the developing world or first-world countries? Looking at RIM’s moves it’s “Everyone”, which is a mistake. There are huge disparities in what each user group wants and expects, their environment, and the technologies that they interact with. These in turn impact everything from product-development to R&D, usability and low-level technical decisions. When you’re a fraction of the size of Google and Apple you can’t spread your resources thin: you have to focus on your core customer group, own that market, and then move out from there.

This lack of focus is evident in other areas as well: from its product lineup, its developer SDKs and even down to how one interacts with a BlackBerry. RIM offers seven different smartphone models with little consistency as to screen-size, OS, or hardware specifications. It offers fourteen different Java SDKs (one per OS version) for its smartphones, as well as four different languages for tablet development – each with a different feature-set. Finally, it offers four different ways to control a BlackBerry: hard buttons, the trackpad/trackball, keyboard and touch-screen. The dominant philosophy behind RIM’s approach seems to be “more is better”, which ignores the reality that there is a point after which more is simply worse; that each additional feature or model reduces the efficient allocation of resources and reduces the polish of what you actually release.

This lack of focus is a long-term drain on the company: as the market changes and you react, resources are stretched even thinner; it becomes harder to create and communicate a consistent and cohesive ecosystem to others, and your employees no longer have a communal sense of purpose.

Lack of Polish

Another major issue for RIM is the finish of its products and features, user-interface and interaction, and its developer SDKs. RIM’s latest product – the BlackBerry PlayBook – was released half-baked, with components like BlackBerry Bridge, the browser and video-chat working inconsistently out-of-the-box. Smartphone features like Voice Commands, Universal Search and BlackBerry Maps are introduced to great fanfare and then not updated to reach their full potential. The BlackBerry UI looks and feels dated in comparison to competitors, with a limited and severe set of UI elements that don’t please or invite user interaction.

The user experience is similarly inconsistent. Each new way of interacting with a BlackBerry (for example the context menus vs. the BlackBerry key) seems to have been tacked on without seriously considering its effects on the overall experience. Things are similarly muddled on the development front. It is hard to find people who like developing for the BlackBerry, especially when compared to competitors’ platforms. Oft-cited problems range from a fragmented device base, to inconsistent APIs, hard-to-design GUIs and an involved compile-test-debug cycle. This, coupled with RIM’s lacklustre HIG, leads to an inconsistent and unpolished end-user experience and applications that pale in features and capabilities when compared to those on competitors’ platforms.

Having a polished end-user experience is crucial in a market that includes platforms like iOS and WebOS, as well as newer generation webapps. A simpler and more polished experience allows users to perform tasks faster and easier. It also increases their attachment to the brand and their reluctance to switch – in other words it becomes a competitive advantage. Providing a well-laid-out, low-barrier-to-entry platform for developers is crucial. The faster and easier you make it for a developer to get out their idea to users, the more they will develop for, and try out new ideas on your platform, thus increasing its viability.

Too Tied to the Past

The BlackBerry form is iconic. Its candy-bar design with its integrated keyboard made communication simpler and faster. BES and BIS made wireless email delivery and remote administration a reality. And running everything through the NOC made sense when devices were seriously hardware-constrained. But times have changed. Today, people expect more from their device than communication: they expect it to serve as a credible replacement (and complement to) their laptops or desktops; they expect to be able to surf the web conveniently and to consume and produce media; and they expect to access third-party services in a comfortable and intuitive way. BlackBerries have not kept pace with these demands.

RIM has always favored a “doing what we’ve always done” approach. It has traditionally focused on the enterprise, sold through carriers, viewed itself as a hardware rather than a platform vendor, and developed candy-bar phones. It’s time to revisit these ways of doing things.

The enterprise is where Canadian corporations go to die, and if RIM retreats to its traditional base this is exactly what will happen. Offerings from Apple and Google will simply move up the value chain until they encroach into, and devour RIM’s turf. The first phases of this are already visible. Carriers are a fickle partner. While they provide a high-volume channel, they care little about which device they sell as long as it’s on their network. They also know little about each device and are unconcerned as to the overall user experience. For RIM to improve its market-responsiveness it has to interact directly with the end-users of its devices and services, find their pain-points and eliminate them. As phones become increasingly general-purpose the notion of the phone as simply a component in platform gains prominence. This is the tack taken by Apple, Google, HP and Microsoft, and RIM has to exceed their standards to stay relevant. This means giving substantially higher priority to internal software development concerns, ideas and timelines, addressing developer concerns and improving feedback to the developer community, etc. The days of the standalone device selling itself are over, and RIM has to improve the health and attractiveness of its platform to remain a strong contender. Finally, although RIM has always developed candy-bar phones, it has to recognize that today people need to process more information, expect a touch-based experience, and are willing to give up battery life to achieve it. Although RIM has made a few tepid steps in this direction, rumored products like the Bold Touch and the Curve (Apollo) don’t acknowledge and respond to this change.

It’s tempting to be wedded to what worked in the past. But in the face of disruptive change clinging to past ways of working condemns companies to a slow slide towards irrelevance. Much better is to recognize the change, and cannibalize your existing markets and offerings in order to respond – before someone else does it for you.

Not Innovating Aggressively Enough

A senior professor in a major Canadian university once addressed a business class and said (and I paraphrase) ‘Don’t innovate – it’s too risky!’. This exemplifies all that’s wrong with Canadian business culture and is a major factor in RIM’s current predicament. While companies like Apple and Google were reimagining how people would interact with their smartphones and how such devices would be specified, built and sold, RIM simply incrementally iterated their existing products. Now they are years behind the competition in features, experience and integration, and fighting a tough battle to stay relevant. In the tech world it’s “innovate or die”, and RIM has to push the boundaries again in both hardware and software to recapture market share. Innovations like the integrated keyboard, wireless email and remote administration made RIM big. The company needs to reinstill that willingness to dream big and to take a chance at all levels again. This will help not just in recapturing marketshare, but in attracting the best talent, and owning new trends. It will help not just in RIM’s current troubles, but will also put it on better footing in the future.

Many companies have been in the position RIM currently is. Some, like IBM and Apple have reinvented themselves and achieved greater success. Others, like Yahoo, have foundered. RIM needs a lot of things to go right for it to make it through. It needs to address its lack of vision, focus and polish; it needs to reevaluate established ways of doing things and begin innovating again; and it has to build “must-have” products. It’s only by addressing these shortcomings that it can stay relevant and succeed against competitors like Apple and Google. And it’s only by making these changes that it can lay the groundwork to own the next disruptive change.

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