It’s time for RIM to make some grown up decisions

I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of building an innovative company the likes of RIM and despite what every analyst and angry shareholder out there thinks, they are innovative and may well have invented portable email.

The chaos that the mobile industry brings is a disruptive one – companies that were seemingly infallible get swallowed by their hubris. This is RIM to a tee. You could argue that their challenge has been the products they have been creating and how they are inferior or unusable but they aren’t. You could argue that they are more expensive but they aren’t. You could argue the service is inconsistent but it isn’t. You could argue that their distribution isn’t broad enough but it is. You could argue they don’t have the relationships but they do.

So what could it be?

I see a few fundamental issues that are preventing the company from regaining its relevance – I say that tongue in cheek as people do forget that they did sell 13 million devices this past quarter – not too shabby, just not enough.

Stop playing catch up

So, is it the technology? In a sense, yes. The strength of the early years of RIM was their RESEARCH and pushing the capabilities of the 2-way pagers. They created the market of email on the hip. I remember this (urban legend?) rumour that Mike L knew he had a winning product on his hands because as we walked around his office people were sitting at their desktops and checking email on their BlackBerrys. Perhaps his executive team should walk around now and see if the staff are checking spreadsheets, playing games or making restaurant reservations from their BlackBerrys or on their desktops. That would be telling.

Hardware always comes up when you talk BlackBerry vs any other device. Honestly, the hardware is “fine” – like my hair looks “fine” or the clothes I’m wearing look “fine” – not a ringing endorsement but I did at point stand in (a short) line to spend $500 on the first BlackBerry Bold and I thought it was the single best product that I had ever used at the time.

RIM needs to stop following and start leading again. Stop looking at the other devices out there and mimicking them. Start owning your name – especially the “research” part. Microsoft took a huge gamble and stopped making mobile anything for 2 years while they got their act together because they realized they were losing – badly (time will tell if that was a good idea but the resulting OS is very good). Sequester your top minds at the Mars-500, remove all distractions of Apple and Google and Microsoft and what’s out there now and innovate. Innovate for the future, not for 2012 – that’s what made them successful.

A change at the top

Sometimes it is time to move on and this co-CEO experiment should end…soon. Mike and Jim have done an exceptional job running this company – Canada’s most valuable technology company – but it may just be time to hand it over to someone with a new vision, new energy and a set of skills that can complement their situation. Running a company in good times is easy, running one on a decline may need a different type of leader – a SINGLE, benevolent dictator really. Change is hard but needed.

Stop chasing the squirrel

It seems that when RIM pivots – as it did with the tablet – the rest of the company is left in the dark. I’m not saying that getting into the tablet space was a bad idea for RIM but they shipped 500,000 tablets this past quarter (no one knows how many they actually sold). Could they have not released a great new phone and sold more of those? Did their focus on beating Apple cause them to miss their numbers? I think so. Stop looking for shiny new objects to play with and focus on the assets you’ve got – and with QNX you now have many more markets to play in that are not in the mobile handset space. Go build.

You can’t be everything to everyone

Are they a consumer play? An enterprise play? Targeting tweens? A messaging service? A security service? A hardware manufacturer? Yes. Nothing was more confusing that the marketing message that came from RIM about the PlayBook (“we are the first enterprise-grade tablet for your business”) vs what we saw on the commercials (“play games, watch movies, all at the same time”). Positioning is key and RIM has lost its way. I think if they get that right they get their product right, they get their company right. Too simple? Perhaps but often times the simplest of the solutions are the ones right in front of you.

As I said, I won’t pretend to understand the challenges that this company has. They are in the fight of their life and I for one think it is time for them to shed their awkward adolescence and enter adulthood.

Can RIM save itself? What are your thoughts.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

  • R.Kao

    well said. I think the last point hits home…RIM needs to focus on enterprise, and get the BES to management different type of device across major platforms. I know they announced that…but when will it come? It is all about execution…

  • Certainly the message of what RIM is vs what they want to be is confusing. The underlying hardware on their devices is good (PlayBook has a good hardware as any tablet on the market) but it’s been a long time since there was a consistent, clear, promising vision communicated by the leadership at RIM externally — so how do you think it was communicated internally? That, and the culture of secrecy at RIM where not enough external perspective is provided to their product roadmap before it’s too late to change it, will be tough to change but important for them to be successful moving forward.

  • You’re right – they seem like they’re worried about doing what everyone else is doing. BlackBerry is a unique, iconic product which does some things really well, and that should be what makes it successful.  Unfortunately the desire to be everything risks making it less appealing to the individual even than the uniformly bland range of Android devices – and nowhere near iPhone.. 

  • Chris

    Steve Jobs was right, the problem with RIM is that they view themselves as a hardware company. They need to be a software company, the hardware is just the dongle to promote the software. Until they realize this its going to be painful for them

  • Ross

    The software is king argument is so 1990’s.  Apple is not a a software company.  They are known as much for their beautifully refined hardware designs and finishes as they are for the software.   They recognized before most that it is the intersection of software and hardware that counts.   Because it is there where you can most effectively drive a superior user experience – and it is that total experience which counts more than anything else.  The total system design and how it can create a delightful user experience.As for this Enterprise vs. Consumer argument … another that is dated and misses the real issue entirely.  The last several years has seen a blurring of the line that separates Enterprise from Consumer devices.   The user is demanding the same experience and access he has with his own personal device, from anything he uses in the office.   This partially explains the trend that we are witnessing of employees demanding that they can use their Apple devices at the office – whether it is their iPhone, iPad or MacAir.

    RIM simply needs to start innovating again.    They must reliably deliver new innovative products at a pace that matches the competition.   They have totally failed in this regard.  

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