Why RIM could and should bounce back: mobile needs to innovate

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RIM has had a hard time since Apple’s iPhone has come out. Apple did more than bring the world a touch screen and the app store, Apple took apart the carrier/phone model that RIM was an absolute genius at building a strong company on. Most people focus on feature for feature device comparison but in reality it is what happened behind the scenes that I think hurt RIM the most.

… as important as the iPhone has been to the fortunes of Apple and AT&T, its real impact is on the structure of the $11 billion-a-year US mobile phone industry. For decades, wireless carriers have treated manufacturers like serfs, using access to their networks as leverage to dictate what phones will get made, how much they will cost, and what features will be available on them. Handsets were viewed largely as cheap, disposable lures, massively subsidized to snare subscribers and lock them into using the carriers’ proprietary services. But the iPhone upsets that balance of power. Carriers are learning that the right phone — even a pricey one — can win customers and bring in revenue. Now, in the pursuit of an Apple-like contract, every manufacturer is racing to create a phone that consumers will love, instead of one that the carriers approve of. “The iPhone is already changing the way carriers and manufacturers behave,” says Michael Olson, a securities analyst at Piper Jaffray.. – Wired, 2008

RIM was slow to adapt to this (not as tragically slow as Nokia was) but if they can hold on they could learn from what has happened so far in mobile. Instead of playing catch up they can lead the next phase.

I am bored with the iPhone and not impressed at all with Android — it is an OS carriers have used to try and claw back control of the device OS version which has resulted in a crazy amount of fragmentation. I do like Windows 8 because they think far more about how people use mobile and have at least tried a new way of using apps. On Nokia devices, Windows might gain some life but maybe the user experience is just not how people want to use the device.

Where is mobile going? Here is my ‘top things that will drive evolution of mobile’ list:

  • Mobile needs to integrate better with how humans function. Nokia is right, mobile devices demand too much of our attention. The Toronto Police are so concerned with it they are ‘clamping down’ on distracted pedestrians. The user experience needs to change so it demands less attention.
  • Your device is your mobile computing platform  for both personal and professional use. The demand for the Pebble demonstrates that people really want other things to work with their phone, BYOD is an IT office coup in terms of keeping costs down but it opens up a big can of worms when it comes to managing the devices, and who the heck wants to carry a wallet with swipe cards around anymore? This also includes home entertainment as it has to work easily with anything that would share your data.
  • Cameras are an essential tool on mobile — if you don’t have a great sensor and lens that doesn’t scratch then people simply won’t buy the phone. Camera’s are essential because humans prefer to communicate with images and people with kids like to take pictures all the time.

Enter RIM’s opportunity. They are a company that got ‘cloud’ on mobile before people called it ‘cloud.’ They also build the best email/msg/input device, period. It is also light on data. As much as we like the real web on mobile, when there are a lot people in one place or you are in a concrete building or underground or some place in between towers or without decent 3G it would be nice if I could at least msg people. RIM can do that better than anyone. An iPhone 4S on Edge is painful and I would imagine so is Android and maybe Windows.

If RIM can build a high quality device that can reduce the attention it takes to use it, have a clear divide between business and personal, and have some kick ass integrations while not loosing the things it does well I would be excited to use the device. I realize that isn’t all that easy to figure out because features alone won’t cut it. The device has to be experimental in how it works and will take some big crazy vision to discover it on both the device level and the how to deliver it to customers level.

I am hopeful that RIM can deliver me from my Apple dependancy – Android certainly can’t.

OMG the RIM is falling

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If you didn’t think RIM was in trouble before one of the co-CEO’s had a meltdown on BBC you certainly started to wonder once that happened. For someone at that level to crack on TV in such a way they must be under immense pressure, now we know what it was. The company has hit a bad time. When that interview happened he must have known the Playbook just wasn’t ready and they had sacrificed the timing on the next model of the Blackberry (and how many great devs) to get that thing out fast. The delays are something they couldn’t afford with Apple’s profits soaring and Android making a whole bunch of different hardware decent to use. The media reaction is visceral, the talk of layoffs is the big news but lacks perspective and certainly is going to do some damage to their stock price (down to ~$25 from $45). Look at their basic numbers though, they are still OK with a lot of cash in the bank but they can’t afford business as usual. It is time to wake up.

There is a lot of talk about what they need to do or if they could be sold. I won’t pretend to have any idea on that. What I do know is that the culture there is broken — no I don’t work there but I have enough friends there and hear enough Office Space-esque stories that you know something is wrong. I know they love cubicles. I know they do nothing like what Google or Desire2Learn does locally for their employees. I know the office environment resembles an insurance company in the 1990′s (for most staff). I know they completely ignore Silicon Valley. RIM is competing with Apple, Google, and Microsoft on devices but on the culture side they don’t come close. Could they be “too Canadian?” By that I mean too boring, too risk adverse, too safe in how they behave, and very conservative in what they allow their employees to do or act in the workplace.

Here is how I would fix RIM: make it fun.

How do you do that? I have no idea with 17000 people. A guess? They have to let go of all the rules they have for themselves. They have to let go of their products. They have to let go of their OS. None of that means throw everything out but take away all their staff’s Blackberries and get them iPhone’s and Android powered phones. Use them. Fall in love with them like everyone else. Then find the flaws, the real flaws, not just the spec sheet ones (Do not sell me on “real multitasking” on the playbook, who the heck watches a movie AND plays a game on the same 7 inch screen?) and make the Blackberry better.

By the way you already have iCloud at RIM and I bet it works way better than iCloud will for the next 8 months. It is called BES and BBM but no one there seems to see the oppertunity there.

Disclaimer: I have never owned a Blackberry because I have never been impressed with their products.