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.