The home of Aaron Traas — man of faith, science, and very bad humor

What's happened to Research In Motion, the company that produced the legendary Blackberry brand, that until 2 years ago, was the gold standard for professional smart-phones. Professionals everywhere loved them, as they allowed one to receive email on the go, and reply rapidly with best-of-breed QWERTY keyboards. Blackberry Enterprise Service allowed corporations to install private, encrypted servers that would send push-notifications to their corporate Blackberry devices and integrate with Microsoft Exchange email servers that are the workhorse of email in corporate America.

With the introduction of the Blackberry Curve in 2006, they started attracting consumers as well, as more and more people wanted email on the go, and Blackberry Messenger—the former best-in-breed mobile instant messaging application to this date. PalmOS and Windows Mobile were waning, particularly among corporate types, and it looked like RIM would have a bright future ahead of it, until of course June of 2007, when Apple released the iPhone. RIM, like all of Apple's soon-to-be competitors, scoffed at Apple for a number of reasons: the iPhone was $600 on contract—a full $300 more than the next highest phone. It lacked key features: Microsoft Exchange integration, 3rd-party applications, cut-and-paste—the list goes on. But unlike all smartphones of the past, it was beautiful, elegant, responsive, and easy-to-use. A few months later, Apple dropped the price, and adoption exploded among consumers. RIM and Microsoft still laughed, saying it would never make inroads in corporate America.

But it did. It gained all of the key features it lacked, and became more beautiful, faster, and easier to use. Android also came onto the scene, exploding with the release of the Motorola Droid on Verizon in 2009. The two-pronged attack from Apple and Google is today absolutely destroying RIM, and rightfully so. RIM did absolutely nothing until 2010 to combat this onslaught, where they purchased the QNX operating system and started work on the Blackberry Playbook, a tablet that doesn't support email, which has always been RIM's bread-and butter. No phones will support the new OS until at mid 2012.

Now, this isn't to say that QNX is a bad OS, or that it can't eventually be competitive, but it's no where close to being ready, and RIM's failure to execute in 2011 could spell its doom. But I'm going to pose two alternatives that would have been much more feasible strategies for RIM.

1) Use Android

One of Android's chief selling points is that it's an open-source OS. Google makes it, but Anyone can use it for free. It's incredibly flexible, and very modular. RIM could have, quite simply, put the vast majority of its software effort into porting its two crown jewels, Blackberry Enterprise Services and Blackberry Messenger, to Android, giving Android a custom home screen that looks/feels a bit more like the old Blackberry home screen, re-named it Blackberry OS 6, and shipped it on a version of the Bold with a touchscreen and a CPU similar to that in the iPhone 3GS and Motorola Droid. If this was released by Q3 2010, they would have sold like hotcakes. RIM would also have access to the Android Market, and the entire Android ecosystem. They wouldn't have to worry about developing/maintaining a 3rd-party SDK, and their brand could have maintained relevance.

Though this would have probably been the best short-term strategy, the long term prospects are a little iffy. Microsoft's ActiveDirectory has eaten away quite a bit at RIM's lucrative BES, so they'd still be losing that as a cash cow. They could differentiate for quite a while being the only manufacturer to make keyboards of the quality they do, but more and more users seem comfortable with touchscreen keyboards. They could spend a lot of money crafting a superior proprietary email client, and using that to differentiate, but eventually that would be copied by Android developers. Regardless, even with these down-sides, they'd be in a much better position for quite a long period of time, and on the cheap, too.

2) Buy Palm

Though this would have been a relatively expensive proposition, after the release of the original Pre, RIM could have purchased Palm, gaining the beautiful but tragically short-lived webOS, which was recently put down by HP. One could see a lot of possibilities here—it was another company looking to capitalize on hardware keyboards, which RIM is great at. It was novel and quite different from Android and iOS. Palm's biggest downfall early on was the lack of hardware execution. RIM could have easily fixed that, porting Blackberry Messenger and Blackberry Enterprise Services to webOS, and porting webOS to high-end Blackberry hardware. WebOS is, indeed, a bit on the slow side, but compared to Blackberry OS 6 and 7, it would be a breath of fresh air. It would give them a modern browser, a group of talented, forward-thinking developers, and a fresh start. I can only imagine what would have happened if by the end of 2011, all phones RIM sold shipped with webOS.

The drawback to this solution is cost. But then, purchasing QNX and The Astonishing Tribe wasn't cheap either. It would have been a bit riskier than the Android route, but with a bigger potential payoff: bigger differentiation. As the demand for BES is waning, RIM couldn't rest on their laurels; they'd have to spend a lot of resources improving webOS, so it would eventually catch up with Android and iOS in speed, features, and application ecosystem.


Frankly, however, both of these solutions would have required decisive action and a quite bit of humility, both of which are out-of-character for RIM. And that's why it didn't happen. Only when it was too late did they reach for the life-raft that was QNX, but it's likely too late.

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