The Year that RIM Bit the Big One

So I'm listening to the +CrackBerry year-end podcast and I can't help but think about how far RIM and the BlackBerry brand have fallen in the last 2+ years.

As it stands, RIM is barely clinging on. Sure, as the defenders point out, the company is still profitable -- but that period is fast-ending. Look at Nokia and how quickly they started sliding into oblivion. Look at Apple in the early to mid 1990s. Once that slippery slope of decline starts, it's very, very difficult to correct.

Looking at RIM and Nokia side-by-side, I'm struck by how differently each company has chosen to address their current predicaments. While both waited far too long to move with the industry, Nokia found religion in February when it agreed to partner with Microsoft and adopt Windows Phone 7.

RIM did was RIM always does: Avoid reality.

I'm going to publicly share a story I've told over the years, because I think it's indicative of how poorly RIM has planned for its future.

Flash back to 2009. I'm still writing for Download Squad (RIP, DLS, RIP) and I'm still a BlackBerry user. Yes, I have an iPod touch second generation, yes, I've gotten past my many-years love of BlackBerry and started to curse its very existence, but I'm still on a BlackBerry and I'm thinking it'll be that way for the foreseeable future.

I do a phone call with some RIM people and the people behind the BlackBerry Partners Fund. This was this multimillion dollar fund aimed at getting good BlackBerry apps developed. So, hands-down, this was the worst call I've ever been on for work. It was just a disaster.

Despite being a BlackBerry user, everyone on the call was offended that I dared speak realistically and point out, in the Spring of 2009, that the app situation on the BlackBerry was sucktastic. I'm fairly sure I was nice about it -- but as any PR people who have been on calls with me know, I'm not the type of person that bullshits around. If your product sucks, I'm going to ask you why. And if you're investing millions into a fund for creating BlackBerry apps, I'm going to ask why the current apps suck and what can be done about it.

The BlackBerry people were not happy. The BlackBerry Fund people were not happy. Meanwhile, I was pretty aghast that they seemed to live in a reality where the BlackBerry Twitter client situation was pitiful, where there was no way to blog from BlackBerry and the game world was non-existent. I'm almost positive I was effectively blacklisted as a press contact from that point forward. In fact, it would be about 18 months before I would finally suddenly get emails from RIMs press people again.

I say this because it's easy to say that RIM was blind-sided by its success and unable to see what was coming, what with iOS, Android taking charge. Except, it wasn't. I was a longtime BlackBerry user. I saw how much the apps sucked and I watched for YEARS as RIM did absolutely nothing to make it better. And they cut off anyone in the press who would point that out.

Fast forward to 2011, RIM continues to do its dance of over-promising the PlayBook. +Adam Ostrow and I co-reviewed the PlayBook together. He got a hands-on by one of the presidents of RIM and then shipped the device to me right before I moved to New York City.

+Grant Robertson really liked the size, me, I'm with Steve Jobs -- 7" is too small to be a real tablet and too big for a phone. It's a tweener.

I was also not impressed with the lack of email -- not that web email would have killed it -- assuming you could have set preferences of how to send a message using a web service in the OS. But you couldn't. It was a kludge.

The product was just "meh" and when compared with the iPad, it was just a joke. Meanwhile, BlackBerry devices got more powerful, but still two-generations behind iPhone and Android, and apps improved, but not enough to make it better.

Now, RIM has delayed BB 10 AGAIN, the phones continue to be outdated, app support is drying up and the only markets that seem to care are emerging markets that don't generate any money. Seriously, that's not a sustainable model. Volume does NOT equal profit. Just ask Nokia.

What's always interesting for me, however, is to watch how respective communities react to bad news about a company. Before Apple was Apple of today, there were fervent and loyal fanatics ready to defend the platform, even in the face of stupidity. Are Intel processors out-clocking the PowerPC chips? Clock speeds are irrelevant -- my G5 is way faster (let's just omit that it also runs so fucking hot it can't go into a laptop)! No games (not even basic games)? Games are for infants! FireFox 2 runs like shit? Camino is just as good (even if it lacks support for plugins and extensions, thus proving it is not nearly as good)! It goes on. Now, over time, as Apple adopted or made changes that solved these problems, those past arguments seemed to disappear and a lot of people claim amnesia. "I never argued that Intel processors were less efficient than the overly-expensive, overpriced and over-hot IBM chips?!"

It's the same thing with RIM fans now. Reading sites like Crackberry, I can't help but giggle at the comments of the wayward fans who are still trying to find a silver lining in RIM turning to shit. "You'll never catch corporate America using an iPhone." Yeah, um, they already do. And that's why RIM has to make software that manages iPhone and Android devices now in a bid to keep the IT people on their leash. They peddle out the same old arguments, the same justifications, all with the hope that those glory days will return.

This happens in every major tech community. Look at webOS now, look at BeOS ten years ago. Hell, look at Amiga (the original defender community if there ever was one). The fact is though, very few companies end up reinventing themselves and coming back to greater glory a la Apple. Most end up just ending up disappointing, bitter and pathetic deaths like Amiga.

There's another difference too -- and this is where I think RIM is really lost: Developers, users and employees have to care about a product. While I certainly get the sense that a certain segment of users care about BlackBerry, it isn't with the same passion that Mac fans cared about Mac in the dark ages -- or that the five or six Amiga die-hards STILL care about Amiga. Most have an affinity to the device that is tied in at least some way, to work.

The bigger problem, however, is that the developers don't care. And I would argue most BlackBerry developers have never cared. It wasn't like Apple, had a penchant for attracting top software talent even when everyone knew that the whole "OS 8 is Great" slogan was a lie and a bad one at that. Companies like Rogue Amoeba, Panic, OmniGroup and Bare Bones Software have been around for a LONG time. And those companies have helped inspire whole new breeds of Mac developers -- and now iOS developers.

Kids who made icons in the forums back in the mid 2000s like +Louie Mantia, went on to work at Apple (and now Square). The developers fucking cared and they went out of their way to make the products better, even when the base product wasn't that good.

And finally, Apple cared. It wasn't ignoring reality. It took a while and a few CEOs to clean things up, but even Gil Amelio saw the major problems at Apple. He didn't solve them or have the leadership skills to right them, but he saw the problems. And one of the things that kept users and developers supporting Apple was that you knew, deep down, the employees at Apple cared what happened and that they wanted a future.

I don't get the sense that RIM executives really care. I don't get that the whole RIM and BlackBerry ethos is part of their DNA. It was part of Nokia's DNA. You can see it when you look at the Lumia 800 -- which is basically the N9, but with Windows Phone 7. It's one of the most beautiful devices I've seen. You see the level of detail. The pride. The crafstmanship.

And then RIM throws out some $2,000 crap like this: http://mashable.com/2011/10/28/porsche-blackberry-bold/.

So in summary, yeah, RIM is off the reservation -- and with delays, lack of strong leadership, shitty software and no buy-in from developers, I'm not really sure where the company is headed.

It's a shame. I have fond memories of my BlackBerry.
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