Managing perceptions and product at RIM like Apple did

A tweet by Peter Mansbridge brought a lot of people’s attention to an article entitled Steve Jobs’ Lesson for RIM: Power of Perceptions, Turnaround 101 which focuses a lot on how Steve Jobs changed the perception of Apple. That perception shift was driven a lot by product and it wasn’t the iPod that did it. It was the other product, the Mac computers and Apple’s ability to extend the life a dead OS that did it I think. Apple focused on revenue building and its ‘cult of mac’ first.

The problem Steve Jobs faced with their OS going from the OS 8/9 to X and where RIM is now feels very similar. Apple extended the life of a dead OS while it built the OS for its future (OS X) that gave Apple the flexibility to build the iPod, the iPhone, and beyond. Did Jobs manage perceptions but how he spoke about Apple? Sure, but he needed product to deliver on that promise that Apple is innovative and cool.

Managing the OS shift over years: Think Different

It is worth looking at Apple OS 8/9 to start as this is where the perception changed started. Compared to Windows 98, Apple OS seemed limited. There were few games, limited software available (mainly multimedia focused software), and these ugly beige boxes in its future. Building a new OS is hard though and Apple was out of money. They need to sell product in the interim. Since they couldn’t get an OS they changed the easier part, they went sorta experimental on the hardware. Bondi Blue iMacs, Power Mac (blue G3, graphite G4), Cubes (at the end of OS days), Clam Shell ibooks, Titanium bodied laptops. These experimental designs appealed to the multimedia creative crowd that used Apple for work. However, at first I think the designs were largely cosmetic but it didn’t matter. It was different.

This perception shift was product driven and brilliant. The faithful kept faith because there were constant updates and new ideas being offered to them. It was different, it was cool, it was worth that Apple premium on ‘top end’ hardware. I remember when I first opened the side of a Graphite G4 in 1998 when my Uni room mate got one. It was way cooler than anything I had seen before.

Then enter OS X.

**The 1998-2001 section in this Wikipedia article goes through the period before OS X which was basically the perception shift ‘heavy lifting’ period I think.

Lesson for RIM is 1998-2001 Apple

RIM is a mobile computing company with their BB OS 7 reaching end of life, they have devices that don’t capture the imagination (but who does at the moment?), and a hardcore group of users similar to the Apple fans of that transition period at Apple. In order to pull an Apple, I think RIM needs to capture people’s imagination with BB OS 7 now and slow down the talk on OS 10 outside of the dev community. Outside of devs I don’t think people care what OS it is anyway, they just want email and messaging.

With BB OS 10 coming soon it could do some things that I think would win over the fans:

  • The latest Bold is a nice device, the Porche designed one is kinda cool. Do more of that but make it really inexpensive for people to get one.
  • Offer those that get the latest Bold now the new BB OS 10 device in an exchange for $100 and offer app store credit of $100.
  • Do something awesome with the NFC tech — help a loyalty program deploy it and offer some crazy promotion on Bolds, give a Bold to every person at the NFL season opener and have their tickets managed via NFC on the device, etc.

I am certain that if you get the right people in a room with a whiteboard for a week (they should be at the FELT lab every day!) they would come out with a few things that are possible to do relatively quickly and will excite the loyal fan base. It seems like Alec Saunders is building his team still so maybe that is where the magic is going to happen? Hope so.


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

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

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.

Got my hands on a Blackberry Playbook

One of the perks of being located in Waterloo is that sometimes you get to see some cool stuff from RIM before other people do. Usually that is because a co-op student or employee drops a “test” unit in a parking lot or fails to hide it well at the pub but this time folks from RIM brought in two Blackberry Playbook to the VeloCity residence!

The Blackberry Playbook

They went through the development options and the deal with getting apps into appworld, etc. All stuff that is blogged about everywhere. What everyone wanted to do was get their hands on it. My first impression? Fast, light, easy to hold with one hand, but the multitasking is probably the most impressive thing that I noticed right away and the one thing I like way more than my iPad. The best part of the presentation though, the icon on the bottom left of the pic above shows an app called Book Keeper, well here is the guy that created that in Flash.

VeloCity student already had an app on there

He just happens to live in VeloCity this term.

So what didn’t I like?

  • The UI is a bit odd. I know Apple is rumoured to be dropping the home button but I went looking for it. To get a menu you have to swipe the bottom third up or pull the top third down. Once I got use to it I still didn’t find it a good way to do it as it didn’t work on first go and if I want out of app I want out now. The other thing I wonder if it will interfere with reading and other things that might like to use that action in the app.
  • Screen is too small. I love my iPad, I love my iPhone, there is a clear difference in screen size and utility. This size of tablet is just bigger than a phone but way smaller than a laptop. I think the same thing that kills the small netbooks is the same thing that will hurt this size of screen. It will be really good for a lot of uses though… but I think it won’t be as fun as an iPad for games and reading.
  • It just looks like hardware, nothing remarkable. Perfect for the business market but not for those that see the tablet as an accessary as well as a tool. That likely won’t hurt the Playbook adoption I don’t think.
  • Trying to get it to work with legacy Blackberry OS apps (we were told just OS 6)… forget your old OS RIM, you will cripple the Playbook with too much software options.
  • The guys demo’ing don’t have an iPad — nothing bugs me more about folks from RIM than their total lack of knowledge of the really hot products out there.

What I really liked?

  • It’s fast, really fast, and the battery is good. This newer build of the Playbook has no battery problem I can see. We had a ton of apps going, pulling a lot of data, a lot of video, and lots of just hard usage for close to 2 hrs and the batteries went down but used maybe a 1/3. It got hot too which says to me the battery should be dead… but it was fine.
  • The screen is nice. Really clear, really bright.
  • Overall user experience is good. I might not like the swipe but overall it is a good experience. Hopefully as they work on it (rotation doesn’t work yet), it will get a bit smoother with the swipe. How easily it just plugged into the 60inch TV in the residence was pretty cool though… can’t do that with an iPad.
  • It is the right size for a tool in that I can one hand it and not be worried it might drop. With the iPad I am always worried about swinging it around and knocking it.
  • The dev environment — Adobe AIR is a smart move.

Overall I think it is good device and if it is priced right I am sure it will do ok. Will it be the market leader? No way. The iPad 2 will certainly keep the hot and sexy category and people will pay a premium for that. However, if you were looking for an affordable (hopefully) tool that is more than you can use to replace a lot of portable devices out there from pay point stuff to inventory apps to restaurant order taking software.

Really excited to see if students at VeloCity try their hand at making some apps for it, maybe some day we will see Kik on it 😉

Kik on a Playbook?

…and yes, all pics taken on an iPhone 4.

Not much to say on RIM vs Kik as yet

By now it isn’t news to folks locally that the maker of the Blackberry and local corporate superstar, RIM, has decided to bring a lawsuit against a young startup in Waterloo (based across the road from RIM) that got its start in VeloCity, Kik. I had thought that I would have some pretty strong opinions on the matter given that I know Ted (CEO/founder of Kik) and I personally have very little affinity towards RIM (although they have been amazing community leaders, no one should let the odd hiccup spoil how great they have been for this community). My opinion at this point is pretty simple: I am confused and worried what this means for the startup community locally given that a lot of ‘founders’ have worked at RIM on co-op at one point.

I do sorta understand and respect RIM’s perspective on this but their reaction seems a tad dramatic. This could really harm the chances of people wanting to develop for their platform and discourage funders willing to fund anyone that has Blackberry development on their road map. Especially if the founders have any previous work history at RIM.

I hope it all gets sorted out quickly. Is it really that hard for RIM to go across the road to talk to them? That is what we do here in Waterloo… we tend to talk and sort out things, figure out ways to work together. Of course on the flip side, I keep being told that you aren’t successful until you get sued… so congrats Kik, you have reached a key milestone on the path to success!