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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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38 comments
 
How about the two RIM execs that got kicked off a plane for drunkenly conduct? Goes to show lack of care from part of front office from pissing away this company.
 
+Steven Grove RIM has nothing to show for themselves aside from their "bulletproof firmware" - and even so, developers don't give a rat's ass about the former.
Jim Cyr
 
another set of losers are the local governments that gave RIM money to set up shop. There's a 2000 person campus 500m from me and i don't think it got staffed over than 800 RIM people. I can see it shut down in a few years.
 
I think apps are becoming a big part of the future of the smartphone market, +Christina Warren. So if Blackberry can't release "usable" - let alone intuitive apps, does that mean RIM has not future...?
 
+Amir Iname basically. I mean, QNX is certainly better than the Java shit-show they have now, but without tools, a clear plan for attack and an ecosystem that celebrates good code/design, I'm not sure how they can convince the best type of developers to care.

The reason that apps like Instagram come out for iPhone first (or exclusively) isn't just about marketshare -- it's that the best developers enjoy the tools more. It's the same with the Mac. Mac has a fraction of the PC marketshare, but the best apps -- why, because the developers care. I've never seen RIM care about apps, let alone third parties.
 
This RIM situation reminds me of Nintendo. After Super Nintendo they seemed to rest on that success. It took a LONG TIME for the wii to come out. Maybe RIM will follow with renewed excitement.
 
They have bad product management pure and simple. They need vision and direction, they have end to end control so they should be able to challenge Apple in design style and iteration.
 
+Christina Warren - if I was one of the remaining few RIM app developers, I would be packing my bags just by LOOKING at the direction in which their brand has been moving over the past 18 months or so. It's very discouraging to realize that a company is busier trying to keep their head above water then improving the tools that their developers have at their disposal - like you said.
 
Simply put, their is no more motivation for developers to be a part of RIM when they could be seeing much more attention and, more importantly, appreciation on another platform like the iPhone - in my opinion.
 
I have a few friends that moved to work at the RIM HQ in the past few years and I fear for their livelyhood as the inevitable downsizing and restructuring occurs next year or the year after..
 
I completely agree. Both RIM and Nokia are in serious trouble, but Nokia has taken significant steps in the right direction. The Lumia 800 is a great start. RIM's only chance is to leap frog the current and next iterations of iOS, Android and Windows Phone/Metro devices. I just don't see that happening. It's possible, but definitely not probable.

I agree regarding developer support and tools, too. The issues there stemmed from RIM fragmenting their own platform. They should have chosen one method and stuck to it themselves, and as their only development environment available. I have no idea why AIR was part of that mix.

Shame, but unless something big happens, they're going to be a footnote in the history of mobile devices.
 
Good article +Christina Warren ... I specially like your direct/ no BS style.

Did Rim ever exploit (market) the fact that on 9/11 they were the only network that didn't collapse under the sheer traffic volume?
 
Technology is both a curse and boon. As companies grow larger the innovation cycle gets longer and the disruptors get all the glory and the customers. It almost seems like every company should have a young start-up type arm that is ready to innovate while the rest of the organization does their thing. It is almost like you need the insurance policy against being caught unawares by technology
 
The way I see it, RIM was a one-hit wonder (corporate class device) from a bygone mobile computing era that "coulda been a contender" but has now spent so many years waffling as to exactly what it wants to be that it's completely missed the boat on doing anything well anymore, and lost its relevance in the process.

Blackberries are still stupidly popular up here in Toronto (a misguided nationalistic loyalty thing, I'm sure), however that's surprisingly increasingly more among teens using their parents' hand-me-downs -- parents, who, in many cases have bought an iPhone or Android device as a replacement.
 
+Jesse Hollington, I have a sneaking suspicion it's a lot of people locked in to those absurdly long contracts with Telus/Rogers/Bell.

One other neat side note Christina... one has to wonder if Balsillie's very publicized and high profile attempt to chase a hockey team hurt RIM. Helping to run a multi-billion dollar company is a big job at the best of times. Doing so while fighting with Gary Bettman and the NHL was probably not the brightest move.
 
+Ron Nurwisah The NHL bid certainly didn't help, but IMHO the two "co-CEOs" had pretty much fallen off the deep end long before that. I think the NHL bid was a symptom of a much larger problem rather than the direct cause of anything.

As for corporate use, I still know many people who work in IT at my former clients where the company policy is to issue Blackberry devices exclusively. What has fundamentally changed however is that almost all of these organizations allow their employees to bring their own device in provided it meets certain requirements. Those few that continue to take a "RIM-or-nothing" policy simply have most of their executives and employees carrying two devices :)
 
good point. there are great markets for them outside of the U.S.
 
if someone can't re-invent the battery RIM devices will still hold for awhile to come, the truth is there are plenty of eco-systems that RIM devices thrive in...that smart phones can't...just like when my girlfriend laughs at me daily as I struggle to keep my android alive for more then 16 hours under light usage and yet she charges her blackberry every 3 days...if that.
 
I hate my BB and can't wait for my company to switch over to Android (scheduled for early next year). I feel like I'm sitting at a stop light in Fred Flinstone's car next to a guy driving a Tesla S.
 
I highly doubt they will fall that fast...yes feature vs feature iOs and Android beat RIM hands down but in real life and field life the battery has alot of weight....plus I also read that 5.7 billion was spent on battery r&d last year with very little progression, for most of us office workers readily available power is usually not a problem, but what if you were an ER doctor or another field service? You know very well you couldnt charge your phone every 4 hours or less.
 
RIM has stepped up their game recently but you have to wonder if it's to little to late? It's as if they were content with being thrashed around by Apple until Android joined the party to.
 
Now RIM is facing the big challenge.Product change everything,but company culture changes product.
 
Hell - is there any place for me left to leave a trail? Would my comment even be read? Wel, I totally agree with this post. Yes, Blackberry never did It for me. I am an Android lover and use it for everything, just a lack that there aren't really good open source applications. The people designing - some of them aren't that good. With apple iOS you really get good applications.
 
At least the RIM CEO's new compensation plan accurately reflects and rewards them for their recent contributions to the organization. :-) And is it just me or is the whole dual CEO thing just wierd? I don't think that ever works. How about they start by whacking one of them. Perhaps that might shake the remaining one out of the delusional fog they've been in for the last 4 years or so. 
 
RIM got cocky. RIM was on top of the world and thought because they had the business community in their pockets they didn't need anyone else. They thought everything else were toys and did not pay any attention to what was going on around. When they finally did, it was way too late. They stayed in their niche and expect their customers to remain loyal but not even those want to stay around anymore. I was a die-hard Blackberry user; now I can't wait to get rid of my clunky 9700 with absolutely no desire to look, even less own a new RIM device.

It's a sad time but it's about time to say goodbye to RIM. 
 
I couldn't have said it better myself!!!!
 
I actually like the Porsche design, if only for the fact that I don't have to be disappointed with the same boring design, year after year from Blackberry. The price tag though...
 
I'm sure there are several people keeping careful tabs on the recent events surrounding RIM so that they can author a book on the subject in the future - the title should be something along the lines of ‎"How the Creator of BlackBerry Managed to Collapse Under Its Own Ego: The Story of Research In Motion"
 
I don't know if it was its own ego- I think it was a TERRIBLE business decision to try to market the BB as a phone for everyone, because to a non-business user, RIM's products just didn't compete with Apple's or Android devices.

Oh, and the Playbook being a giant PoS didn't help either.
 
I could imagine that Steve Jobs used to have a little count down timer on his wall labeled, "Days till RIM dies". Apple has been trying to mean the needs of the business users to try and win over that market. It's happening. People are bringing their Personal iPhones to work, and showing them around, and winning over people with a web browser that actually works. I know many people who are new iPhone users who go the 4S, and Siri is a big deal for them, while they are on the road driving between jobs/meetings. It's a big deal that Apple, as a single company, is paying attention to its customers. It makes a big difference in a lot of ways that not everyone appreciates.
 
+Belinda Blok. I hear this argument a lot about RIM's incredible sales in developing or newly industrialized countries. I just don't think it means anything for RIM over the long term. RIM is able to generate volumes in these countries because carriers are looking for lower cost smart phones to sell to consumers and Blackberry fits the bill. As soon as the carriers can charge subscribers rates that can carry the cost of more expensive phones, and as the cost of these phones fall more, they will start selling. And in the tech world, North America often leads the trend which means that many countries (that are big buyers of RIM products today) will likely catch up and start demanding more feature rich phones like iPhones and Androids once the cost curve for these devices comes down.
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