Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Lessons In Corporate Strategy From BlackBerry's Flawed PlayBook

I am writing this from vacation on the North Fork of Long Island, the sound of waves crashing to my front, wineries spread out to my back, my BlackBerry in "off" position at my side. Connectedness and technology are some of the last things on my mind. But I am disheartened, so I have to speak up.

I returned my RIM PlayBook last week.

It was a difficult decision for me. As a loyal BlackBerry user and a fan of RIM—one of our generation’s most radical companies, the idea birthed by two Canadian entrepreneurs who disrupted global mobile behemoths and built a $20 billion revenue giant—I really wanted to love the PlayBook, BlackBerry’s answer to the iPad. I have resisted the urge to jump on the iPad bandwagon. But RIM motivated even a loyal fan to abandon the BlackBerry movement. I fear the reasons explain why a company whose revenue grew by $5 billion, or 33%, last year endured a stock decline of 60%.

The deciding factors of my return, as is the case in most such battles, have nothing to do with the underlying technology. The PlayBook, by many counts, is a superior machine to the iPad. It is thinner, lighter, has a better camera, and it runs Flash (the iPad doesn’t). On the surface, there is no reason RIM should lose a loyal customer like me. But they did. And if they do not address the reasons why, I fear the company is in for a rough, potentially disastrous, few years, especially in light of the recent Google-Motorola acquisition. Here are the three big ways RIM screwed it up.

1. Not recognizing the consumer power shift

The fundamental pattern of technology adoption is shifting. In the old world, in which corporate IT departments determined which technology to approve and employees (users) simply had to follow suit, BlackBerry wielded a clear advantage. IT departments loved RIM’s solution for its security and reliability.

But the winds of adoption are shifting. Employees are in the driver’s seat. They are convincing their IT departments to adopt the platforms employees desire. The winners of tomorrow need to create solutions that appeal to consumers, not just their employers.

While RIM has made impressive strides in shifting from enterprises to consumers, the experience of my PlayBook shows they still have a long way to go. It took me 45 minutes from opening the box to being able to explore my new PlayBook. When my wife bought her iPad, she was already connected, and exploring within 10 minutes.

Such adoption shifts have taken down giants. When beer purchases in Japan shifted from men in liquor stores to women in groceries, the once-dominant Kirin fell to the newcomer rival, Asahi. This was akin to Sam Adams replacing Budweiser as the leading national beer.

2. Failing to create a "headless movement"

Last week’s riots in England left many asking, "Who is behind the unrest?" That is the wrong question in today’s world. It reveals an outdated mindset which says that movements are led by an individual. But it seems no one person or organization is behind the U.K. riots, just as no one can rightfully claim credit for the "Arab Spring," the series of revolutions that swept the Middle East earlier this year.

There is no one behind the curtain anymore. It used to be you would follow the energy and find a mastermind manipulating things.

Apple is brilliant at creating such "headless movements." This is why there are over 400,000 apps available for Apple users, while just a fraction of that number from RIM’s app store.

RIM’s spark just has not yet led to fire. I wanted to download the Amazon Kindle app immediately. This was my primary motivation for buying the PlayBook in the first place. Unfortunately, Amazon has still not yet released an app to allow us to read our Kindle books on the PlayBook.

How is Apple able to create a loyal, global network of app development professionals? Why hasn’t RIM created that kind of excitement? The issues are complex. But if RIM does not figure that out, I worry they will be shrink into "almost ran" status.

3. Copying the competition

What made RIM great was its willingness to create its own path. Rather than offering devices with voice, it stuck to "outdated" technology, selling devices that could only pass emails. Instead of adding features, RIM focused on stripping things out to create a super-fast and responsive device.

Today I sense RIM is losing its unique identity. The company's BlackBerry "Storm" had an interface shamefully similar to that of Apple’s iPod. The PlayBook is a lightly veiled copycat of the iPad.

No company proved itself great by copying the competition. Greatness comes from leaving the competition behind, by blazing your own path. When Qualcomm finally stopped competing (by selling handsets) and embraced its uniqueness (creating mobile IP) in 1999, its profits suddenly soared. RIM needs to reconnect with what makes it unique and align its strategy to this uniqueness.

I hope RIM succeeds. I still want to believe. But unless the company addresses some fundamental strategic issues that ultimately led me, a loyal customer, to switch, I worry it may become just another tired runner in the pack. What can we learn from RIM's failures? To succeed, companies must:


  • Fully embrace the shift from enterprise to consumer adoption of technology.
  • Learn to create a headless movement, an army of revolutionaries who are passionate about their vision.
  • Find their own path and resist the temptation to "catch up" to the competition.


[Image: Flickr user Nemo's great uncle]

Add New Comment


  • Johnny Register

    I bought a 32gb PlayBook recently, and took it back after a few weeks.  It is, without a doubt, a powerful piece of tech... completely hampered by a stagnant operational environment.  The apps are laughable - not just because of a complete lack of consumer-demanded ones like Kindle, Netflix, Skype, etc. but also because the new 2.0 update crippled so many of the existing apps to the point that my PlayBook became unusable until I uninstalled almost everything new I had grabbed from AppWorld.  Add to that the constant browser crashes that persisted even after I uninstalled every single non-core app.  I really do like so much about it - Bridge, Flash, bezel gestures, and so on - but there simply aren't enough apps to make it appealing to most people, and the 2.0 update gimped the tablet.

  • juan5645

    So, it runs Flash. That is not strategy. That is a feature.
    Strategy is about deciding whether you want to play head-to-head against the Apple gorilla, or play to your strengths (and their weaknesses). Strategy is deciding not to focus on Game development and latest graphical hardware, bells and whistles; but investing in security & reliability, collaboration, user experience for professionals, running Excel macro's, having a real Microsoft Office experience and enabling professional add-in developers to run their software on this device.
    Strategy is releasing a RIM Professional Tablet before Apple realizes that they are ignoring this market (because the Consumer market is probably bigger and growing faster), while leaving it up to the $1.99 developers to see how it plays out. Enable SAP, SPSS, Autodesk, Microsoft, Adobe, the ‘Big Players’; this is where Apple is weak. These companies are unclear on how to play with Tablets; they do not know how professionals are using their iPads, other than as expensive agendas, browsers, and maybe SharePoint viewers (or loaning it to their 3-yr-old to watch Netflix)
    RIM needs to recognize that it needs to fight Judo, not wrestle.
    My suggestion to RIM is to focus on the Professional side of business and the Consumers will follow. Rather than following on Apple’s footsteps.
    Proud Owner of an iPad 2 (and hoping Jobs had iPad's 5+ in the innovation pipeline before he quit)
    If you’re still reading… to me Features are having it run Flash, have a nice 5MP camera, being 10.1 or 12.7”, running Kindle, being able to explore (the web) in 5 or 15 minutes; this is not strategy. Unless you have “Best User Experience Ever for Everybody” in your strategy document, but then the device would cost $10,000 like the Apple LISA. Strategy is about saying in 5-10 years, here is where we need to be, our first step is to launch this PlayBook that will have 5% of Tablet Consumers content.

  • llamos

    I have had a PlayBook (64 gb) since launch in April. In the time it took to drink my chai, it was up, running, updated and bridged to my BlackBerry Style. No, it doesn't have 400,000 apps--just the ones I need.

    I suspect that there's a bit of piling on about the Playbook. For instance, aside from a Kindle reader, I have never heard any of the chattering masses say exactly which kinds if apps the PlayBook is missing.

  • Stephen Halasnik

    I think Kaihan's key to not liking the Playbook has more to do about the lack of Apps available on the playbook verses the ipad. The fact that the kindle, one of the top apps, is not on the Playbook says alot and although Kaihan didn't emphasize it, that is why he returned the product. I think his idea that a headless movement exists is contradictory against books such as "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. It is the early adopter cusomers that are moving products into the mainstream. Based on Kaihan's past posts, RIM, needs to move to the next battleground.

  • Larry Batz

    45 minutes to setup?

    I recently acquired the 64 GB Playbook and it took me just 15 minutes from getting it out of the box until I was enjoying its best of breed screen and smooth touch response. (In other words, in your words, being able to "explore my new Playbook").

    I do not use a Blackberry phone so I did not attempt to setup the bridge tool. But you are not required to do that right away either if you just want to get up and running.

    Note too that it took 15 minutes only because the device automatically updated to the latest 1.0.7 firmware. If that didn't happen, I would have been ready to go in 5 - 6 minutes after first turning it on.

    If anything, the ease of setup is one of Playbook's strengths.

  • Marie Biles

    Really think that RIM has ignored the value of cultivating their "headless" developer network to build momentum and build their app power...which with the ability to handle flash has been totally underplayed. I personally know that more than a few consultant types like myself have tried to drive this point home to no avail.  All the points you bring out in your article are not new...there just does not seem to be enough management "will", talent or leadership - but that is entirely fixable. Contrary to your advice, I am going to get the Playbook.  We already have a household iPad, and it is nice, but not killer for a whole host of reasons.  Besides...I just plan refuse to live in a a one tablet world!  

  • Guy L

    Your title is very harsh and tendentious as many reviews about the Blackberry tablet and RIM in general. I would never say that the Playbook is flawed. Far from it. It is amazing how negative the media have been about the Playbook in the last months. As if all reviewers and journalists were Having tested the iPad2, Samsung Galaxy Tab and other new tablets, it is the only one that gave me a truely complete web browsing experience. I finally bought a Playbook for its superior quality and I use it everyday. I am even close to developing an addiction! The hardware according to all reviews (even negative) is better than iPad2 in almost all aspects (memory, screen definition and brightness, flash, multitasking, responsiveness, camera). Of course, the app store has just started and is limited (so was the Apple App Store when the iPad came out, remember?). The software needs some improvement, but RIM regularly is providing useful updates. Native email, calendar, and  the Android App player are on their way. But for now, who really needs all these when one can use the full internet in such a smooth way. Of course, RIM has made a lot of marketing mistakes, you can feel it even when you visit a store and the poor little playbook stands in an obscure corner of the electronic store. But the device itself is extremely performant. Do not hesitate to give it a try or even buy it. Too bad, Kaihan, you brought it back to the store so soon. I hope you'll reconsider when the 4G Playbook comes out.

  • Guy L

    Oops! incomplete sentence:

    As if all reviewers and journalists were working for Apple. Well, they certainly do in a way by constantly bashing the competition.

  • Andy Strote

    So let me just ask - you didn't check to see whether there was a Kindle app before you bought the PlayBook? And that was your main reason for buying it? Hmmm.

  • Chris Hamoen

    Honestly, the Playbook didn't "feel right" for many (form factor), and it had some rough bugs early on.

  • David Huggins

    Thank you for this considered insight. I almost invested in a Playbook last week. The reason I did not was simply because the store 'expert' failed to demonstrate the benefits of the product. I wrote this off to the individual's ineptitude at the time but it may well be that he was a victim of two of your points - lack of a consumer interface and unecessary complexity in setup. This would have resulted in no effective enthusiasm at the point of sale.
    RIM - please address these critical issues lest there be more like me!

  • bud carlos

    Fully embrace the shift from enterprise to consumer adoption of technology.Learn to create a headless movement, an army of revolutionaries who are passionate about their vision.Find their own path and resist the temptation to “catch up” to the competition.All good stuff.  Forgot to tell RIM how to get on with it.  How to implement.  Smart guy could be helpfuyl there.Read it again, though, and thought it sounded like a speech, maybe.  Rah-rah for the masses.Read it again and thought, gee, how pompous.Read the whole piece again looking for reasons the writer returned PlayBook.Two reasons given:  too long to set up;  no Amazon app for kindle.
    That would drive anyone to the brink.