RIM BlackBerry

I have a lot of time for RIM, the company behind the business person’s friend, the BlackBerry.

They were the first smartphone company I used when I finally stopped being a technophile and moved away from my trusty Nokia GSM handset. I’ve worked with them a few times on some pretty cool projects. And they have – in my mind – one of the best features on any smartphone, with their instant message BlackBerry Messenger option, or BBM.

And yet…

They seem to have lost their way a little in the last 12 months or so. What was once a company offering huge innovation, and enjoying a large audience within the enterprise world, now seems to be playing catch-up with not only their (recent) biggest competitor, Apple, but the new guys on the block in the shape of Google and their Android system.

In a way, the RIM of today kind of reminds me of video games company SEGA in the run-up to when they dropped out of the hardware wars back in 2001.

Confused Hedgehogs and the SEGA Example

When the video games industry was at its peak back in the late 80′s and early-to-mid 90′s (prior to today’s billion dollar industry), SEGA enjoyed huge success with its Mega Drive/Genesis (depending on your country) system.

The Mega Drive was the first real 16-bit home video game system, which basically meant it was graphically head and shoulders above other home systems like the Nintendo NES and the NEC PC-Engine. From the moment you powered up Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega’s mascot to combat Super Mario), the Mega Drive screamed next generation. Video gamers lapped it up and it was SEGA’s most successful console.

But then they got confused and lost their way. In a bid to compete with Nintendo’s new Super NES and the imminent arrival of the much-vaunted 3DO system, SEGA released some questionable add-ons.

The SEGA CD and the 32X were bolt-ons to the core Mega Drive unit, but were woefully thought-out. This resulted in a lack of any quality games, and the systems essentially tanked.

Because of this, SEGA’s reputation was hurt, and when they released the true successor to the Mega Drive, the Saturn, sales were poor. It didn’t help that Sony had arrived and attracted a much wider audience with its new PlayStation console. SEGA never recovered.

Their last hurrah was with the Dreamcast – still one of my all-time favourite consoles ever. Yet because of the failings with the SEGA CD, 32X and Saturn, not to mention Sony’s continued dominance and Microsoft’s arrival into gaming with the Xbox, SEGA’s glory days were over.

The Dreamcast was their last piece of hardware, and they switched to game development only in 2001.

SEGA had been the leader when it came to innovation and coolness. But with a lack of focus, and what were perceived as rushed releases to compete with their competitors, they lost all but their most hardcore fans to the new kids on the block.

Sound familiar?

Mobile Mash-Ups and the RIM Example

RIM has always been big with the enterprise market. The security on their hardware means business people can access documents and store important information, and feel pretty safe in the knowledge it’ll be hard to breach.

Additionally, they made it easy and cool to be connected to your office while not physically being their. Their email suite and ability to share documents like Excel and Powerpoint was a big factor in their early success. They knew their market and played to their strengths.

Then Apple arrived.

iPhone versus BlackBerryThe success of the iPhone made a lot of people question the need for a BlackBerry. The iPhone had a huge amount of apps – some free, some premium – that could essentially replicate much of what the BlackBerry did.

Additionally, the touch screen option was cool, as was the ability to play mini-arcade games and (perhaps most importantly) sync all your iTunes songs to your iPhone. Simply put, Apple made mobile handsets really cool.

Added to the iPhone threat, Google announced their entry into the smartphone market with their Android operating system. This would allow multiple manufacturers to make a smartphone, and Google would make its software available across these platforms. And, importantly, they made many of their apps free, which took on both RIM and Apple.

So successful was this approach, Android is now the leading smartphone platform in the U.S. While RIM is currently second, their market share is falling while Apple’s is growing, and many analysts expect RIM to drop further in the hardware “war”.

To combat the popularity of the Android and the iPhone’s touch screen, RIM released the BlackBerry Torch, which mixes the QWERTY keyboard of “traditional” BlackBerry handsets with a touch screen option.

A lot of business owners I know aren’t too keen on it – they feel it’s not enough of a touch screen experience to match the iPhone or Android, and they still prefer the hard pad keyboard. And some reports would suggest that the Torch simply hasn’t excited the consumer market in the way RIM would like.

And then there’s the tablets…

Small Is The New Big?

Building on their iPhone success, Apple released the iPad and it was a huge success. This bridged the gap between a smartphone and a full-size MacBook or laptop, and both consumers and business users loved it.

With the tablet market expected to grow exponentially throughout 2011 and into 2012, not being part of that – and allowing Apple to own the space – would not be a smart move. Enter RIM with their PlayBook. Taking a direct swipe at Apple, the PlayBook is smaller (so meant to be more compact for travellers), as well as compatible with Flash – something many iPad users missed from their platform.

Initial reports were fairly positive, with the feeling that – finally – RIM had a product that would punch Apple in the face.

Then RIM announced that for the first version of the PlayBook, if you wanted to use the secure RIM email service, you’d need to tether your existing BlackBerry to it. Huh? There was also no 3G option – you can only get that with an additional app.

Cue a bit of backlash.

Having messed around with the PlayBook, it’s a smart little piece of kit. But the emphasis is on little. At 7-inches, it’s less than the standard 10-inch plus of other tablets. And with a large border frame around the display screen, it seems even less of a jump in size from the iPhone or Android that I use, the Samsung Galaxy.

This has many folks asking where the PlayBook will find its audience. Will they take away consumers from Apple, or will they build on their enterprise offerings that made the BlackBerry so successful? But how well will a smaller screen go over with business users looking to show slideshows and presentations?

The SEGA and RIM Mirror Image

I don’t know – I see so many mirror images between RIM and SEGA.

  • Leading innovative platform, resulting in (perceived) comfort zones with its userbase.
  • New releases didn’t always offer huge differences in previous versions.
  • New competitors perhaps not taken seriously enough. Again, the comfort zone comes into play.
  • Slow to react to changing landscape.
  • Bolt-ons to compete with competitor features.
  • Do we go after the consumers or solidify our hardcore fans?

I’m sure RIM and their long-term fans will disagree. After all, it’s their baby and who cares what one blogger thinks.

But I’m also a fan of RIM, and it’s sad to see such a great company seemingly falter when they should be charging. And I know other BlackBerry fans feel the same. It’d be a shame to see them follow the same route as SEGA, and just become an operating system and app developer.

SEGA let the others take up the mantle. What’s your thoughts on RIM and BlackBerry doing the same?

image: kk+

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