RIM and BlackBerry: Benchmarks for Progress

RIM.BlackBerry.Logos.180pxPicked up the three Toronto newspapers Monday morning; each had the front page headline about the executive changes at Research in Motion that were made public late Sunday night, (I was caught up watching the 49’ers – Giants NFC Conference overtime final that ran rather late and had taken time off from the Internet.)

ASaunders.gr8exec.twitter.23Jan12It’s been some time since I wrote a post about RIM and Blackberry. In fact, the last one was about the announcement of the appointment of long-time acquaintance Alec Saunders as Vice President, Developer Relations. Alec has certainly made an impression with developers as shown on Twitter; the comment on the right showed up yesterday morning.

Porsche.Playbook.Dashboard.CES2012Yes, I caught up with Alec at CES where I was not only able to check out the Playbook OS 2.0 but also got to have a look at the Porsche equipped with QNX firmware and three Playbooks. But more importantly was how attending CES – not at the booth but in discussions as I walked around the show – reinforced my conclusions after watching RIM’s quarterly report last fall, when they announced delays of the launch of the new OS 2.0 for Playbook. At the same time I was reading the Steve Jobs bio and how he made sure that product showed up on time. I also have had a chance to check out the current Playbook – great hardware but lacking in applications that make it a “must have” to carry around. And there’s my own experience over the years not only observing technology business restructurings but also participating at a senior management level in a NASDAQ-listed company restructuring with all the associated performance pressures. The technology may change but the business management issues don’t. The bottom line was that RIM had significant internal operations problems showing up publicly as an inability to execute. It only got further reinforced by the December announcement of delays in the launch of a QNX-based Blackberry.

The end user is not concerned with the technology behind the service, they’re concerned with the applications they can get.

On the other hand the response of the financial community to the CEO change shows that they simply don’t get it; there’s no “instant fix” or formula for turning RIM around. Looking at traditional restructurings purely from an “old” business breakup model viewpoint is the wrong approach for assessing the potential of a unique technology portfolio. It’s about resources and people and how they are led as much as product. I have to support new CEO Thorsten Hines’ continuation of the current overall vision and strategy for RIM. Not that this is not fraught with risks! His challenge is making the changes to drive both vision and execution that result in a unique “must have” product line.

Here’s my viewpoint:

  1. As became really obvious after announcing the delays not only of OS 2.0 for Playbook but also Blackberry phones , the number one priority for RIM is to fix the internal processes for managing execution to deadlines. Reading the Steve Jobs bio at the time of this announcement (and having had my own experience working under a “driven” CEO) brought this point home. Steve simply would not let a deadline be changed; he may have been a bit off the deep end and erratic at times but he ensured that Apple had the execution leadership and team required to meet deadlines.  The first benchmark for the “new” RIM will be the launch of OS 2.0 for Playbook in February; certainly the demos at CES looked promising. And the recent price reduction on Playbook simply became a way to seed 800,000 units in preparation for the upgrade (aside from getting this hardware off the inventory line of RIM’s balance sheet). Those 800,000 users are now positioned to provide their own feedback.
  2. The second benchmark was reinforced by the new CEO’s comment made in 2005 while at Siemens about the future of smartphones: “The end user is not concerned with the technology behind the service, they’re concerned with the applications they can get.”  About the same time over six years ago Alec Saunders wrote his “Voice 2.0 Manifesto” where he emphasized that “applications are the value creators”. And I have to say that my experience with the Playbook 1.0 was underwhelming. While it possesses great hardware and there have been some interesting applications, it lacks not only the number of applications but, even more importantly, some critical applications. So my second benchmark relates to application development:
    1. We need to see some critical common applications, starting with Skype which badly needs a mobile platform that supports true multitasking and battery management. Dropbox and Kindle for the Playbook are two others that should easily be able to take full advantage of QNX’s inherent multitasking and multiprocessor functionality. Yes, you can access some of these, such as Dropbox, via a web browser but it’s not the simplest user experience. Skype would make it possible to converse with any of their over 200 million active users on any platform. In today’s communications and social networking world Skype is critical to any communications platform.
    2. BBDevConEuropeSoldOutWe need to see an evolving base of third party applications. As Alec pointed out in his presentation at RIM’s North America developer conference last fall, RIM’s developer program for Blackberry phones has been actually the second most successful smartphone in terms of revenue generated for developers. Other developer conferences in Singapore last fall and Amsterdam next month are indicators of developer enthusiasm; certainly attendance at Singapore demonstrated significant attention in the southeast Asia market – and the Amsterdam developer conference is sold out. But there are several issues that need to be addressed to facilitate developer interest including legal ones (make the agreement short and simple) and having a sufficient tool set in a decent time frame that encourages developers to participate in new product launches. (Alec did acknowledge some of these issues at his presentation last fall.)
    3. BlackBerry App World needs significant improvements. Yes new versions have been coming out but… Having to reboot the device when installing certain new programs or upgrades does not cut the mustard. It must also be able to handle multiple upgrades on a single action. iOS certainly sets the benchmark here in terms of the user experience.
  3. Thirdly  there is the expectation that there is some “Messianic” Steve Jobs out there who can solve RIM’s problems as CEO. It ain’t goin’ to happen; there was only one Steve Jobs. Recently we have seen examples at, say, Yahoo and HP, where bringing in “experienced” CEO’s has been a failure. Appointing someone with internal experience also brings along an exposure to RIM’s processes and personnel that allows more rapid implementation of internally required changes (such as execution). Tony Bates at Skype has also demonstrated that it helps to bring along a combination of both technology expertise and running high tech business operations to make things happen; again his focus has been on execution. A priority on appointing the right Chief Marketing Officer will hopefully bring in significant outside experience beyond simply marketing to a key vacuum currently existing at RIM. At the same time, let’s hope the board can recruit a couple of significant “technology company” directors from, say, Silicon Valley to contribute to the experience spectrum and strategic executive networking.
  4. Then there’s one other key role for a CEO: Establishing and rebuilding key business relationships is one additional benchmark for measuring the new CEO’s success. One responsibility for any CEO is to build and maintain credibility, especially when it comes to dealing with key business partners, not only major software vendors, carriers and suppliers but also with business customers – all at a CxO level.  While they certainly built a major player in the wireless industry, with all the recent turmoil it became apparent that Mike and Jim had burned themselves out. As shown at Microsoft with Bill Gates becoming Chief Software Architect (in the years prior to his retirement), it is necessary to keep on board the founding visionary in a consultative role for at least a couple of years. Mike Lazaradis can continue to bring technology experience and vision that can benefit the company as long as he remains a reference resource and not an impact on operations.
  5. Finally on the issue of break-up. It’s not an option; a breakup would destroy the company. As mentioned when the Playbook was first launched, RIM has a significant portfolio of wireless and handheld device assets. It also has services such as its network operations centres that ensure both security and minimum wireless spectrum overhead. But history shows that one needs to control the entire ecosystem to have a successful product line – need I mention Apple? On the other hand RIM’s technology, especially with QNX and its user base, opens doors for unique applications (as shown with the Porsche demonstration). It’s the integrated options available that can create the true value. The challenge here is to find the “killer” apps or set of apps that can uniquely distinguish Playbook and BlackBerry as real time communications devices and not simply a content delivery device. Thorsten explains it quite well in this video:

BayStAnalysts.ASaunders.24Jan12Bottom LIne: RIM is turning out to be an interesting business case study. Here’s a company that has over $20B in annual sales, $1.5B in cash, 75,000,000 users, no debt and so far has remained profitable. It has a major patent portfolio and unparalled wireless expertise in areas such as security and efficient data delivery. Without QNX we would not even be having this discussion and RIM would really be struggling – their old OS had outgrown its viability. In  some ways RIM is in a position most “startups” would be envious to be in.

Yet there’s the declining market share in its major market where it can only offer its current product line for another six to nine months; however, it’s still a major market leader in many other markets (U.K., Indonesia, etc.) Yet, by its new CEO’s admission it’s still got “traces of a startup”. RIM is certainly in a reboot stage but … can it re-establish itself with the combination of new market positioning, internal restructuring and a culture change to more disciplined operations? The real focus needs to be on fixing the internal operations as much as on external marketing. Unfortunately this was only buried in one CEO video from RIM whereas the media and analysts wanted to feed on sound bites about “no need to change the overall strategy”.

The only way to really measure performance of a new CEO is to set benchmarks. Presented here are five major ones that must be addressed in the next six to nine months if RIM is to succeed. As mentioned in this interview with a local Kitchener-Waterloo radio station, Thorsten needs time to demonstrate he can provide the team leadership required to pull this off.

Here’s a Financial Post story about a change that’s been in play for the past few months: Ottawa taking centre stage in RIM’s future.

(The Tweet above appeared as i was writing this paragraph. “Porter terminal” is the downtown Toronto airport; Bay St. is the Canadian equivalent of Wall Street.)

Full disclosure: My first interest is in seeing over 8,000 Canadian jobs (not to overlook all those in other countries) preserved but while meeting a market need. But this video also demonstrates the impact of RIM on the Kitchener-Waterloo community.

I have an iPad (and had an iPhone until it was lost recently – yes, I’ll replace it), a BlackBerry Torch 9800 and a Playbook. Having them all is necessary to fully understand the dynamics of the market. (I’ve had some exposure to Android devices and many acquaintances with them.) Apple’s record quarterly performance results announced yesterday certainly reinforce the need for RIM to find a unique market niche; even Tim Cook at Apple recognized that the Amazon Fire is first and foremost an e-reader and not a tablet competitor to iPad.

While in the past I have held RIM shares (since 1998) at the moment my holding is minimal.  I have never worked at RIM nor had RIM as a client. I have frequently visited Waterloo and its university for over thirty years and have attended most of their annual meetings during that time.

My only other bias probably arises from the fact that I also hold advanced degrees in Physics and Business; the combination of a physicist and experienced technology business person can be brutal when it comes to seeking success. You learn to pay attention to details, delegate, set goals and yet understand where opportunities can arise. (And I once worked for 18 months in Germany as a physicist in a business environment.)

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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