January 23, 2012

My Thoughts on RIM BlackBerry...

The news of Research in Motion’s Co-CEOs/Co-Founders stepping down shook the Mobile Industry a little bit today.  Although not surprised, it is still a sad day for mobile enthusiasts because of what BlackBerry has done for the smartphone industry.  This blog post is my point-of-view on how BlackBerry came about; it’s strictly my view as a consumer/mobile geek.  There is probably a lot more depth to the situation but again, here is my simple view:

BlackBerry’s gradual decline in market share started a few years ago; anyone who’s following the stock market or reading gadget news can tell you the basic story, that iPhones and Android devices eventually took it’s lunch money.  While it is easy to put RIM’s outcome along with the likes of Palm, Nokia and Motorola, there is something more profound about BlackBerry devices and how it got here.

In 2004, when I first took notice of the potential of smartphones, I looked into early Windows Mobile devices.  At the time, an HP iPaq 6315, caught my attention, it had early makings of an awesome smartphone even by 2012 standard (WiFi/GPRS, supports MS Office, Browser, Emails, Music, Videos, Expandable Storage, Apps, etc.); however, there was one problem… it was so buggy that even the store rep recommended against selling it to me.  That is when I first noticed BlackBerry as an alternative.  I have seen BlackBerry devices prior, but it was mostly in hands of the senior managers at my work and looked like an oversized two-way pager with a monochrome LCD and you can’t make phone calls.  When I realized there were consumer level BBs with color LCD, I went for it, a BlackBerry 7100t on T-Mobile Network.  It was one of the first color screen BlackBerry with a smaller SureType keyboard.  It was good at sending/receiving text emails and I got most out of it by hosting my own mobile(WAP) bookmark webpage to make browsing bearable.  RIM at this point, is really enjoying its business model as an email device.

For years after that, BlackBerry continued to leverage its email capabilities and slowly rolled out desirable features supporting music, videos, camera, 3G, Bluetooth and eventually WiFi.  Although these features were available, it’s hardly user friendly.  But who cares?  People would continue to buy BlackBerry devices for it’s amazing push email technology.  As a result, it continued to gain market share and eat Windows Mobile’s lunch; even pre-iPhone fan-boys had to give up their beloved Palm Treos to get a BlackBerry since having reliable push email service was the in-thing.  RIM continued to enjoy it’s success as a leading mobile email device maker.

As RIM continued gaining popularity from its Email capabilities and completely penetrating itself into all levels of corporate IT departments, professionals relied on BlackBerry for work and some even bought them as personal devices due to its association with the professional world (ie. owning a BlackBerry can be seen as a power status or being; this effect then became global, making its way into hands of youth and housewives).  It seemed like RIM didn’t feel like there is a need to innovate beyond what it has to offer; after all, why bother? On one hand, they’ve got the corporate email / IT department nailed down, on the other hand, they’ve got a decent ramp up in the consumer market, why mess up a good thing?

Then, suddenly, Apple disrupted the market with the introduction of the original iPhone in 2007.  For years, smartphone users have adapted to the limitations of small screens and have decided that for anything beyond emails, we should wait until we can get in front of a computer to complete that task.  The iPhone changed that drastically.  It’s advanced touch screen and useful application icons means you can make the first leap of faith into a computer-less world (and get rid of the stylus or physical keyboard).  With a full HTML browser and ‘pretty-good’ email support, consumers started to realize the once promising idea of a smartphone is now a possibility, reality.  At this point, my guess is that RIM must have taken notice and some plan to react is being devised.  But it was still enjoying it’s success as the device of choice for email and sales from corporate IT department continued to fuel it’s focus as a professional email device; still, at the time that no other email device can match.

In the 5 years after that (2007-2011), we have experienced an exponential growth in mobile technology.  Countless iterations of iPhones and Android devices arrived to the scene.  Microsoft’s deep pocket is also tossing a series of new Windows Phone 7 devices into the mix.  Even Palm stir the pot further with a short-lived WebOS smartphones.  Consumers were inundated with more robust mobile operating systems and demanded high resolution screens, multi-media experience, full internet browsers, thousands of small but robust mobile applications to fuel their starving need to become 4G wirelessly connected.  Email capability has now become one of the many features required.  People wanted one device that does it all.  Despite BlackBerry's late attempt in bringing in advanced hardware (Storm, Bold, Torch) and software (BS 6.0 in 2010, BS 7.0 in 2011) to the market, it was simply too late.  Apple and Google’s network externality effect has already reached to some level of maturity.

Whats to come of RIM in the coming years?  It’s going to be very difficult to compete at the same level as Apple and Android devices; after all, it tried already via BS 7.0 devices and consumers are too sticky to the current players.  As far as the US market goes, there should still be a decent size corporate market that refuses to upgrade beyond its BES servers/licensing.  RIM should be able to continue to service those accounts.  There might be some opportunities for the international markets.  There might be some opportunities to license its BES software/technology to work better with iPhone or Android.  The mobile industry has seen some serious partnerships or merger in the past couple of years.  HP purchased Palm, Nokia and Microsoft partnership and Motorola’s move to support Android OS and finally Google’s acquisition of Motorola.  A merger could be a potential solution for them as well.

To me, RIM’s strategy has always been a mobile email device and it has delivered as such.  Throughout the years, they added some bells and whistles to its mobile devices but the integration was poorly executed until much later.  I have used a couple of BlackBerry devices in the early days but soon gave it up and eventually switched into a WM6 device, proceeded by a Symbian OS device, iOS, Android and finally iOS 4.0+.  While I am not surprised by today’s news, as a mobile fanatic, I am sadden by this news.  RIM has been along the way of my own development as a Mobile professional and I do hope the company find it’s way back for the many years to come.

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