RIM's Only Road Back: Building An iPhone Killer

Once upon a time, Research in Motion was the world's leading smartphone company. Armies of executives were loyal to their “crackberries.” It had a stock price that wouldn't quit.

Fast-forward a few years and its failed tablet has caused RIM to miss its third-quarter revenue target. It’s been weighed down by lengthy network outages. Legions of people are ditching BBMs for iMessages and abandoning BlackBerry keyboards for Android keyboards. Speculation over RIM’s demise hits the press daily, and I’m sure many news outlets already have drafted its obituary.

But there's still time for RIM to save itself and recapture its former glory. How? It's time to get up off the floor, stop wasting time with me-too products and finally build a product that’s better than the iPhone.

That’s right. Stop strategizing and pontificating about the future, stop getting distracted by tablets and do what Apple did to you: Simply build a better product. If RIM built a product people preferred using to the existing choices; if it took a step back from playing catch-up and producing me-too products to innovate and produce a device that makes everyday tasks more convenient, that delights and astonishes users, that improves the quality of consumers’ lives, RIM could very well survive. Because that’s all that users of digital media and technology want: technology that makes their lives easier. 

Focusing on user needs, somewhat ironically, is how RIM became the original smartphone wunderkind. It defined its user base as executives and politicians that relied on the device to rapidly send important, sensitive, and secure emails.

To this end, for example, in 2004 it produced a keyboard that had 20 keys rather than 26 and powered this usability innovation with proprietary predictive text software--a great idea. But then when smartphones began offering cameras and downloadable software like games, RIM nixed these features because of security concerns.

You know how this story ends. They were so myopically focused on meeting the needs of corporate customers, by the time they realized these executive email senders were also consumers who wanted to enjoy using their devices, they had already been leapfrogged by the competition. Ever since, RIM has tried to put this right by releasing their own versions of Apple and Google devices, but again, you know where this goes--to a stock price down from its high of $148 in 2008 to today’s bargain-basement $17 price tag. 

RIM's challenge is both simple and incredibly difficult. To survive, it must produce a new product people love to use more than the iPhone. But this is doable: Apple proves it once a year at least. The 4GS bested the iPhone 4 with Siri, the iPhone 4 bested the 3GS with FaceTime. Microsoft has tried to do it with its now-defunct Kin and its current Windows Phones that provide a user experience that breaks away from the same-old, same-old grid of application icons.

The first step for RIM to create an iPhone killer is achieving parity in function, if not form. That, after all, is Android’s user experience in a nutshell. This comes down to two things:

  • Making sure the network never crashes again. If I were in charge, I wouldn’t try to prevent network outages; I would harness all of the resources necessary to actually solve the problem.
  • Creating a rich app library. I’d make sure all BlackBerry devices could run Android apps--admittedly, not a trivial challenge, but both are based on the Java programming language so it’s technologically feasible. 

Designing a better device comes down to the right people, the right strategy, and the right environment. I’d start by: 

  • Hiring the best design talent. The opportunity to reverse the fortunes of a former tech darling and revolutionize the smartphone market is an appealing proposition.
  • Exploiting the one weakness that the iPhone will always have: its hard-to-use screen-based keyboard, and simultaneously leveraging one of BlackBerry’s former strengths, its keyboard.  
  • Running it as a “skunkworks” project, insulated and freed from the company's existing corporate culture and bureaucracy. 
  • Organizing the talent in microteams where each would operate on a discrete component of the larger system. This would maintain a nimble, entrepreneurial atmosphere. 

With these ingredients in place, RIM would stand the chance of joining Apple on the list of legendary companies that were written off for dead and then returned to triumphant glory. It just needs the right product to get there.

Aaron Shapiro is the CEO of HUGE and the author of Users Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business.

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[Image: Flickr user jardenberg]

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3 Comments

  • patrick lim

    So RIM will uproot from Ontario. Split into 2 HQs, Shanghai for the best hardware talents, California for the best ideas. The reality is there are good management around. but with businesses as it is now. fast growth and immediate unsustainable results. Who would be patient enough? Thus RIM will like go down where Apple went. Near extinction. Then their board of directors can wake up and have some patience, listen carefully to what can be done and go for sustainable results. same for every other large company out there. i call it the MNC poison.

  • pokeguy

    Point #1 - hiring the best design talent is a challenge. Not just design talent, but talent overall. Hardware being more or less equal, it's all about human capital and execution. I'm not sure how many techy creative types want to live and work in the tiny town of Waterloo, ON. California will always have the ability to attract the best. Waterloo, not so much. RIM will have to settle for 2nd best.

  • Aaron Shapiro

    It's absolutely a challenge, but the answer isn't throwing your hands up and accepting that that's a situation you have no ability to change. Doing whatever is needed to overcome that obstacle is part of the process.