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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]

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