Cheering for BlackBerry

on January 27, 2013

BlackBerry invitation header

On Wednesday, Research In Motion will launch its bid to save itself with the redesigned from the ground up BlackBerry. I’ll be at the launch event and I will judge the new hardware and software on their merits, still I have to admit that I am cheering for a BlackBerry comeback.

Apple reinvented the smartphone in 2007, but before that, the most important smartphone innovations came from Palm and RIM. Palm’s Treo (actually, the original version came from Handspring, a company started by Palm’s founders and later merged back into Palm) invented the concept of integrating a mobile phone and a PDA, along with third-party apps. The original BlackBerry, which was not a phone, created true mobile email and calendar. Eventually, this all came together to create the modern smartphone, which Apple took to the next level with the iPhone.

The iPhone did in Palm and nearly killed RIM. The decline of Palm was inevitable. The company was always cursed  by under-financing and a lack of stable, competent management. When Apple turned up the heat, Palm lacked the wherewithal to respond successfully with its reinvention after its purchase by Elevation Partners was too little, too late. Its demise after a horribly bungled acquisition by Hewlett-Packard was a somehow fitting  ending to a very sad tale.

RIM is a very different story. Palm knew what was happening to it but couldn’t do much about it. RIM, riding high as BlackBerry sales continued to soar well into the iPhone era, but lacked the paranoia than Intel’s Andy Grove long ago pointed out was a key to survival in a highly competitive industry. RIM co-CEOs Michael Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie were convinced of the superiority of their product and their business model and failed to respond to the market’s shift toward demanding highly capable handheld computers, not glorified messaging devices.

Fortunately, RIM, unlike Palm, had deep financial resources and significant annuity revenue streams that bought it another chance. It has two reservoirs of strength, the popularity of its low-end devices in emerging markets (where volume sales can be had, but profits are scarce) and enterprises, especially governments and others with the greatest concern about security. Success in neither is a given, but the opportunities exist. And I’ll admit to a long-standing fondness for RIM, particularly Mike Lazaridis’ uncontained enthusiasm when he talked about his newest BlackBerry or showed off a lab at RIM’s Waterloo, Ont., headquarters.

I think that both Android and Apple would benefit from some additional competition. Microsoft, despite heroic efforts, has so far failed to win much traction in the mobile market. Had Windows Phone and Windows RT taken off, there wouldn’t be much room for a RIM comeback. But they haven’t, so there is. It’s going to take a spectacularly good product to succeed in this tough neighborhood. I’m hoping that RIM still has it in them.