Dumb or Disrupted? The Demise of RIM

on July 3, 2012
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Poor, dumb, old RIM

There sure has been an awful lot of talk of late about just how awful things have gotten for poor, dumb, old RIM. Some of the talk is sympathetic: “How could it have come to this?” A lot of the talk is apoplectic: “What is wrong with the players in the mobile industry?” Some of the talk is sad and regretful: “Oh, those poor people in Waterloo, Canada.”

But much of the talk has been downright giddy, spiteful, and soaked through and through with twenty-twenty hindsight.

“RIM,” the critics chortle, “was too arrogant to recognize the dangers posed by the iPhone and Android; too slow moving to react when they finally saw the danger; and too dumb to know what to do when they finally did react.”

“Keyboard loving co-CEO’s Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis got exactly what was coming to them. Their sanctimonious, self-righteous, self-assured, sanguinity finally caught up to them and now they, and RIM, are paying the price for their arrogance and their ignorance.”

Hmm. Maybe. Maybe so. But then again, maybe not.

A Littler Perspective

In 2006, the crown princes of smart phones were RIM, Palm, Nokia and Microsoft. They were smart, successful companies run by smart, successful men.

Today, Palm is gone, Windows Mobile is gone and its replacement, Windows Phone 7, is running in place unable to gain any traction in the market. Meanwhile, Nokia has given up its independence and become a vassal to Microsoft and RIM has one foot in the grave.

Did all of these powerful companies and all of these smart CEO’s suddenly become incompetent and deadly dumb all at the same time? Or did something external happen that made them just look stupid to unsympathetic and unforgiving critics like you and me?

The iPhone Happend

In 2007, the iPhone happened. it’s not like the industry wasn’t watching. But what they saw didn’t scare them at all. It was pretty obvious, even at a cursory glance, than the iPhone was no phone competitor. They were oh so right. But that’s what made what was about to happen so very, very bad. Bad for them, at least.

Market disruption is caused when an innovation creates a new value network. Prior to 2007, smart phones were phones that did a little computing on the side. The iPhone was a computer that that did a little phone calling on the side. RIM, Palm and Nokia were phone companies. Apple, Google and Microsoft are computer companies. When the value shifted from the phone to the pocket computer, the advantage moved from the phone companies to the computer companies.

Palm, Nokia, RIM and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile thought they were safe from another phone competitor – especially one that wasn’t that great a phone and didn’t even come with a keyboard. They were right. But what Palm, Nokia, RIM and Microsoft didn’t realize was they weren’t competing with a phone. They were competing with a pocket computer.

The value chain had shifted. The incumbents were still – successfully – defending the old value chain. But their customers weren’t leaving them for better phones, they were leaving them for better computers. They fact that those computers sent texts, did email and even made phone calls was simply a bonus. The phone makers were blind-sided. The pocket computers were good enough to compete with them. But they had no answer to the superior benefits provided by the pocket computers.

  • Google
  • Google (Android) was the first to react. They dumped their RIM-like phone designs and (eventually) created a superb alternative to the iPhone. Their market success is a testament to their flexibility and their programming prowess.

    I don’t want, in any way, to diminish the stellar job that Google did with Android, but, in addition to being good, they might also have gotten just a little bit lucky too. (Nothing wrong with that.) Their timing was ideal. Their OS was ready, they hadn’t yet committed to the market and when the newly minted iPhone arrived on the scene, the Android team pivoted on a dime and took advantage of a gap in the market and what turned out to be a golden opportunity.

    The stuff of champions.

  • Palm
  • Palm was the next company to see the writing on the wall. They ditched their existing OS and went all in on webOS. Unfortunately for Palm (and perhaps for us all), they didn’t have the resources to sustain their efforts. They ran out of money, ran out of time and they ran out of chances.

    (I’m not going to rehash their second chance with HP. Too painful.)

  • Microsoft
  • Microsoft was the next company to see the light. We can mock Ballmer all we want for initially laughing at the iPhone but once Microsoft decided to act they acted decisively. Microsoft unceremoniously dumped Windows Mobile and entered into a massive effort to create the wholly re-imagined Windows Phone 7.

    Their reward? A tiny sliver of the market and no traction whatsoever. All of Microsoft’s business connections and all of their resources couldn’t buy them back into the market. Most didn’t know it at the time, but the window of opportunity to climb back into mobile phones that were really pocket computers had already closed or was closing fast.

  • Nokia
  • Nokia was the next to see the light or, in their case, they were next to see the “burning platform”. Ex-Microsoft executive Stephen Elop shoved Nokia off the platforms that were Symbian and MeeGo right into the icy waters that are Windows Phone 7. Their efforts, not unexpectedly, were met with a chilly reception. Nokia isn’t sunk yet but they may be going down for the third time. If circumstances don’t throw them a life preserver soon, we’ll be writing requiems for them next.

  • RIM
  • RIM was the last to have the scales fall from their eyes. And while it’s true that RIM’s co-CEO’s kept us all constantly entertained with their oh-so-dumb,-we-obviously-don’t-get-it quotes, it was probably over for them long, long ago.

    If it was already too late when Palm tried to make the switch; it if may have already been too late when Microsoft tried to make the switch, what chance did RIM’s belated efforts really have?

    Not an Excuse, but an Explanation

    It may be true that RIM was arrogant, RIM was slow to change and RIM made some bad choices. But if you had been in their shoes, you too may well have followed the same path that they did.

    In 2007, RIM was a bastion of strength and the iPhone was an impudent interloper. Go back and read the commentary from the time and you’ll see that even as the iPhone started to catch on and even as Android started its meteoric rise, RIM’s future was assured.

    RIM had an impenetrable moat built around their business. BBM’s instant message service and RIM’s security gave RIM two unique and competitor-proof features. Customers adored (and still adore) using RIM’s BlackBerry phones for texting and emailing. And business and government entities were never going to give up their CrackBerry’s and the airtight security that came with them.

    For RIM to have changed in 2007, 2008 or even 2009 would have seemed like madness. Why abandon one’s strengths to chase a chimera? Let consumers play with their Apple and Android toys. Real phone lovers loved to do real work on real phones like the RIM BlackBerry. And RIM’s loyalty and sales retention were second to none. They didn’t call those phones “Crackberries” for nothing.

    Requiem for RIM

    We can make fun of RIM and their codependent CEO’s all day long or – maybe, just maybe – they deserve our understanding instead of our derision. Maybe, instead of mocking RIM, we should be whispering a silent prayer of thanks that Apple didn’t come into our back yard and disrupt our business and make us all look as dumb as a box of rocks.

    Was RIM really dumb or were they doomed from the get go? The iPhone and the Android phones were pocket computers. Apple and Google and later Microsoft were computer companies with tons of experience in creating computer software and computer operating systems.

    RIM was a phone company that did computing on the side. Compared to Apple and Google, they had little experience in computers and computer operating systems. They would have had to abandon their roots, toss out everything they knew and chose to compete with computer companies on their terms, all while their current business model was still, not only viable but, very successful and profitable as well. When you think of it that way, it’s asking a awful lot.

    Conclusion

    Maybe RIM did wait too long. Or maybe their so-called window of opportunity never really existed in the first place. When the iPhone first appeared, RIM could have tossed everything that had worked for them in the past and chased a device that, by all rights, was sure to fail or, at best, become a niche product. They could have done that. But most likely, RIM never really had a chance at all. They were finished that moment, in January 2007, when Steve Jobs lifted the iconic device over his head and declared: “…and we call it..iPhone!”