Mobility

RIM's spectacular technology demise

Find out why Patrick Gray thinks RIM is fighting a losing battle, as related to tablets and IT in general, and what we can learn from its struggle.

To say that 2011 was a tough year for BlackBerry manufacturer and former tech darling RIM would be an understatement. While there's no shortage of customers, investors, and writers happy to jump on the RIM-bashing bandwagon, not all that long ago, the company was a pioneer. Before "smartphone" entered the vernacular, I remember the average person referring to anything that wasn't a "dumb" phone as a BlackBerry. Being a bit of an outlier, one of my early smartphones was a Windows mobile device, and I'd often have people ask, "What kind of BlackBerry is that?"

However, RIM certainly appears to be fighting a losing battle these days, with activist investors encouraging the company to sell itself outright or become a holding company for intellectual property rather than mobile powerhouse. There's no shortage of reasons as to how RIM landed in this state, but I'd like to focus on two that are instructive as related to tablets and IT in general.

Death by enterprise

RIM made its initial mark in the corporate space, evolving from high-end pagers to revolutionary devices that unleashed email from the confines of the desktop and made it mobile. The sales pitch essentially wrote itself: in a time sensitive business climate (i.e., all the time), being able to exchange information before the "other guy" had an obvious competitive advantage. RIM was the first company to take mobile email mainstream and had to build the infrastructure to support it, from the BlackBerry device itself to its own global infrastructure and corporate software to "plug in" a company's email system.

All was well and good until mobile email was no longer a unique and innovative technology and began shipping as part of most corporate email systems. This shift occurred around the same time that consumers became interested in smartphones and started demanding devices that were easy to use, extensible, and fun: attributes that were effectively ignored in the enterprise market in exchange for security, manageability, and compatibility.

While Apple and Google were scratching this new consumer itch and shipping millions of devices, RIM was stuck maintaining devices, mobile software, enterprise software, and a massive infrastructure to make the whole thing work. At one extreme, a company like Google or Microsoft could write the mobile software and let other parties worry about all the other pieces. RIM was the only major player that took on every piece of the puzzle, a Herculean task for an Apple or Microsoft, and an impossible goal to achieve with any semblance of quality and innovation for a smaller player.

Several other companies have struggled with "death by enterprise," and it presents a very real risk to technology companies. I have no insider information, but I'm sure RIM patiently surveyed and listened to its major customers as they requested the same device with marginal improvements and a continued focus on enterprise software and incremental improvements rather than innovation. The same people who participated in those surveys are now likely sporting iPhones or Androids, since RIM kept satisfying today's customer rather than considering what tomorrow's customer would want.

The failed PlayBook

RIM's PlayBook tablet was one of the spectacular technology failures of 2011, and likely a device RIM hopes to soon forget. The failings of the PlayBook could probably consume a book-sized work, but from my perspective, it committed the greatest of technology sins: providing a solution without articulating the problem it was meant to solve. Furthermore, the product was half-baked at best, with a company renowned for mobile email having the hubris to release a device that completely skipped the feature unless paired with a BlackBerry phone.

The PlayBook also smacks of death by enterprise. It doesn't take much to imagine marketers and product developers reading responses from satisfied RIM customers and convincing themselves that a device with an untested operating system, no email functionality, and vague promises of being "enterprise ready" would be a hot seller. The best companies learn from failure and move on, but the seeming obsession with the PlayBook is a major distraction for a company already occupied with designing and building hardware, mobile software, enterprise software, and email infrastructure -- creating a situation where RIM has become a jack of all trades and master of none.

So what can we learn?

Not being a RIM shareholder, I have no personal stake in the company, save for hating to see a smartphone pioneer struggle and remain so seemingly rudderless. For a CIO or IT manager, however, RIM's struggles are instructive. It's easy to get stuck in the limited world of enterprise IT, eventually growing to detest "the business" and "users" as inconveniences hell-bent on ruining your carefully constructed infrastructure. It's also easy to get caught up in the vendor-driven world of "enterprise solutions" when a consumer technology, process fix, or simple change in thinking can solve a problem better than the latest technology.

It also seems that RIM has adopted the colloquial definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, which is something that we have all been guilty of at some point.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

16 comments
tonyrenier
tonyrenier

I'm still using a Blackberry 5 Device (Tour) and have a Playbook 64. I have had an Iphone and 2 Android devices. I was disappointed with random reboots, battery use and freezing. Now that we know Google is monitoring everything we do (including this post) I would never go back to Android, in fact I suspect that all the poorly vetted apps will not only make Android data vulnerable but Linux as well, as they are based on the same code. Google cracking the Ios browser means Iphone is now vulnerable as well. I'll stick to my Blackberries; at least Google hasn't cracked them yet. Probably too small a market, thanks to the press.

lawtd
lawtd

This is what happens if out of touch management (read as L/B) influences product development and design too much.

dbilling
dbilling

I think the issue is that the PlayBook took too long to get to market and had too few features compared to the iPad. It is being compated to the iPad, because that's the standard that has been set. All of the Executives in my environment that have been issued PlayBooks have returned them and are now all on iPads. The buggy aspect of connecting your BlackBerry to your PlayBook to read emails and look at documents is what doomed the device in my environment.

andy.hefty
andy.hefty

RIM's apologists and executives called the iPhone a "toy" when it was introduced. I saw too many of them claim "Hey, we're BlackBerry. No one will leave us." What they should have done was make a bee-line for the corporate board room and begin to innovate. Instead, they held on to what they thought people wanted instead of developing what consumers actually purchased. Apple and Android took something from "cool" to "useful." But they didn't stop there. Now, they went from "useful" to "necessary." And it doesn't appear they are satisfied with that. RIM is still stuck on yesterday's necessities. Just because something is solid doesn't mean it will sell.

radleym
radleym

Was trying to please the idiots in the media and the players in the stock market, by trying to appear as all things to all people. Who else provides the secure infrastructure that they do?

mmayor
mmayor

Is RIM under a targeted attack by the media? I love tech stuff, but have never owned a Blackberry. I didn't know much about Research in Motion except that they were a successful Canadian tech company. I bought a Playbook, based on hands on, in store testing and a lot of very positive user reviews. Maybe it's just me and 99% of the other purchasers that bought one, but I can't find much to dislike about this amazing little piece of technology. It has a wonderful, solid quality feel and it just seems to do everything well. No push email? That's the deal breaker? You know what... it doesn't make coffee either. I'm afraid I don't believe much I read anymore... Nor should you, good readers. Make up your own minds. Don't believe me either... get out and grab a Playbook, an iPad and whatever Android tablet you can get your hands on and figure it out for yourself. You'll probably end up buying one of these sweet little 'failures'.... I did.

reparent
reparent

Reading an article such as this one makes me wonder if I should spend any more time reading articles here. I came here to learn from supposely "expert" people in the field but clearly that is not the case. I mean sure everyone is entitled to their opinion but this article is clearly about someone who got hooked up by media and bad press on RIM and someone who didn't do his homework on the playbook. The people posting comments here obviously knows the product contrary to the Patrick who just posted a review based on what he read elsewhere. If you want to loose credibility this is the way to go. Anyone who I talk to who owns a Blackberry or a playbook is happy with their product. Don't listen to some guy who has no clue!

lovelylb51
lovelylb51

Hi have also been using the Playbook since December '11. I have tried the Nook Color,Pandigital and I must say for quality,look,ease of use and features the Playbook is the best of the ones I have tried. I think the IPad is too big for me so this 7" tablet is just what I need. As for an email client,I can use Gmail and have my email in a flash. No problem. I have had no problem with any of Playbooks features. It is a winner for me and I would buy a Playbook again! Thanks RIM!

sharmaniac
sharmaniac

The playbook seems a decent device. RIM's problem is, their key market is enterprise email, and they charged about $30/mth per user for the privilege. Now that anyone can get email on their smartphone, WITHOUT having to pay this $30 charge, RIM is losing money. They still do well since Blackberry Enterprise Server, despite being rather crap sometimes, is a useful bit of software for administrating phones. However, they are sliding down a slippery slope and I don't see anything for them to grab onto unless they come up with something totally new.

info
info

There's nothing wrong with RIM, the Blackberry, or the Playbook. What's wrong is mostly in people's heads. When did our perception of IT change from expecting it to change on a quarterly basis for improvement to NEEDING it to change, just for the sake of change? I like the iPhone and the Android devices, although I have a Blackberry. I'm comfortable using any of them. Patrick is right when he mentions the Blackberry isn't as 'fun' as the other options. But since when did 'functional' and 'practical' take a back seat to 'fun' in the business world? This is what I don't understand. Each device has it's place, but the negative hype against RIM seems to be driven by: A) Technical Columnists; These people decry the lack of options and 'openness' that Android provides, or the number of apps that Apple and Android offer. But while they may be able to deal with Android's myriad options and a constantly changing interface, the non-technical users (which are the majority, usually older or strictly business users) usually have problems. However, people don't think of this until it's often too late, and since these writers are the 'experts', they should be listened to...; B) Perceived Lack of Innovation: Sure, RIM's devices haven't changed much over the past few years compared to Apple and Android, but that's because they're solid, stable, and they WORK. The car hasn't changed much over the past 40 YEARS. You don't see people demanding 6 wheels or two steering wheels or other drastic changes because last year's models are so... LAST YEAR. Our company was choosing between two products, one was solid, 'stoic' and not very innovative. The other was new, modern, and had model changes every two years with flashy features. We went with the latter, which was plagued with problems from being new and unproven. We suffered a lot of downtime. I cycled out that product with one from the former company and, despite it's being 'old technology' and not as flashy-looking, it works BETTER; C) North American Business Model: Did NOONE learn anything from the tech bubble bursting or 2009's crash? Once investors see a drop in growth (not a loss, but just a drop in PROFIT) they cry 'failure' and look for the 'next big thing' to ride as long as they can. Heck, these RIM shareholders that are calling for the company to be divided and sold off seem to just happen to own firms that specialize in DOING JUST THAT. Isn't that funny? I don't suppose they stand to profit from that happening...; D) Media Hype: A combination of the previous three, with the media's sensationalist spin to blow it completely out of proportion. Sure it's one of the largest companies in the World, with tons of sales and profit...but they're THIS close to bankruptcy! Honest! This hit home to me when I was on vacation, and I went to help a fellow traveler that was lost. I fired up Google Maps on my BlackBerry and this older lady exclaimed, "Oh, is that one of those BlackBerrys? I thought they weren't making those anymore..." Thanks a lot, media... Well, if things keep going the way they are and we lose RIM for whatever reason, I know that IT support teams and users probably won't miss them until they realize they're stuck with what's left...

Jxoco
Jxoco

I have a Playbook and I love it. it solves all of my, former laptop, needs. It pairs with my Blackberry and that is the power of it. I have a Mac and an iPhone and I love them for other reasons. When it comes to getting work done for work about work, the BB/Playbook is a killer combo.

Greeneyes
Greeneyes

I was like Cartman, waiting for his new Wii, from the moment I heard about the Playbook!! I bought mine as soon as I could and embarked on a 6 week trip to Europe, Playbook in hand. I had a great time and my Playbook was a big part of the enjoyment. I read all the reviews coming up to its release and I got what I expected to get, and what's more, I love it much more than I thought would. It goes everywhere with me and stands in for my laptop on short overnight stays. It always works, battery charge lasts forever, takes great pics and 1080p video and .... it fits in the small bag I always take with me (man purse) snugly nestled against my daytimer when it isn't in my hand. If I was a slave to my phone and forking out a small fortune to a cell provider for a data plan I'm sure I would be in Nirvana with bridging, tethering, enterprising et al. I love my Blackberry Bold with it's actual keyboard and I love my Playbook tablet. Thank you RIM, keep up the good work.

guylh
guylh

I have been using the "failed technology" (as you call it) of Playbook since last summer with absolutely no problem! The smooth and most powerful web browser of any tablet allows me a full internet experience and easily accessing my email. Galaxy and iPad which I tried felt more like toys to me. The weaknesses of RIM are caused by a huge MARKETING failure, and a constant bashing by the media. Just look now how the press is "in love" with the Kindle Fire, which is in fact a weak and incomplete version of the Playbook. Nothing is really wrong with RIM phone and tablet technologies. Quite the contrary. I encourage consumers to do their own researches before giving too much credit to biased articles like this one.

reparent
reparent

I couldn't agree more with you on this one. I whish I could say I have tried all other tablets and say that the playbook is the best of them but I haven't. What I will say though is that I have read a LOT of reviews (over 200 from Amazon, the Source, staples and futureshop) and I can say that about 2 out of 3 persons who did play with both the Ipad2 and the playbook prefered the playbook. I myself don't even have the blackberry to enjoy it even more and I still like it a lot. I have showed it to many people and they all love it, I spent some time showing it to someone who owns an Ipad and that person was actually very impressed with it (not so with the Ipad). So yeah Apple for some reason was able to sell their image just like Nike did a long time ago and everyone blindly adopted it.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I was rather impressed with the playbook in the local bookstore but when talking to BB admins: - no mobile network, wifi only? - BB features only available when paired with a blackberry? Give that little beast a cell radio and baked in BB functions and this would all be a very different conversation. Still, nice bit of gear for what it does. Sad to see it on the shelf beside the Beta Max tapes.

josmyth
josmyth

I don't know what all the RIM bashing is about. Maybe because Apple was first and it's not just like an iPad? I wasn't an early adopter with Playbook, but when they dropped the price by $300, it became an impulse buy and well worth it. The Bridge works fine for synching email, but I will be happier when two devices are not needed. There are a few bugs as you can expect with a first release, but nothing to make it "half-baked." I think the author has never tried a Playbook but instead just parrots the bad press from everywhere else while claiming to be neutral.