Surviving RIM


I’m going to go right out on a limb here and put in writing that I had a ringside seat to watch RIM’s downfall, that it was like watching an airplane crash in extreme slow-motion, and that I’m both sad and relieved that it’s finally flaming out.

Years ago, in the early 2000s and before they started signing deals across Europe, I was working on next-generation mobile services. At the time, we were looking for ways to sell data services, because, you know, carriers never really got the Internet.

Seriously - I remember being fresh out of our dial-up ISP, sitting in a room full of people who simply did not believe anyone would ever want the Internet on their laptop, let alone on their phone. But messaging solutions we could bill for? Let’s make sure we take that money!

It was pretty obvious to anyone with at least two working neurons that they were sitting on a “killer app” for mobile data, so I e-mailed someone at RIM regarding setting up a local trial, but at the time they didn’t even do GSM (the Blackberrys of that era were the fat, pager-like devices that came with rather hideous belt holsters).

So nothing happened until a few years later - i.e., by the time Vodafone went on an acquisition spree and took over the company I worked for.

When we did get suitable devices (the wondrous “high resolution” monochrome ones that worked for weeks on a single charge), I was in one of my liaison roles and became deeply involved in setting up the whole thing from the technical side.

But I was always asked to sit in on portfolio and product meetings and, from that moment on, had a hand in acceptance testing for all their devices. I basically used every single thing they launched, and quite a few they didn’t.

And I loved their stuff - it was spartan, but extremely efficient, as well as extremely addictive. It was the experience to beat, and they knew it.

Quite a few years later, when I returned to Marketing, I naturally became Blackberry product manager for the consumer segment in Portugal. It was an interesting switch from the corporate services stuff I had been doing, and it was especially timely given the profound shifts that were occurring in the consumer space (this was in the post-3G era, when mobile broadband was booming).

Over time, my impression changed (slowly but surely) from having the privilege of working with a company that was way ahead of its time and that had superb radio and OS engineering to an inscrutable black box that focused almost solely on ensuring licensing fees came in on time.

Their product cycles became intolerably long. Roadmaps would go unfulfilled. Bug fixes became rarefied to the point of non-existence - we submitted some translation fixes time and time again over two years and across at least four different handset models, none of which were ever addressed to our satisfaction. And their notion of innovation…

Well, let’s just say that when this WSJ piece mentioned the Blackberry Storm along with the opinion that it sold “really well”, I nearly choked. I can’t really say much about what happened1, but there is a little anecdote that sums up our experience with that particular device (from network testing to after-sales support) rather nicely:

For years now, I and the other people involved in that particular project (from testing to post-launch) deeply regret never having made T-Shirts that read “I survived the Blackberry Storm”.

I think there’s still time to get some printed, but just barely.

As to the causes for their downfall, I concede the point that didn’t help that the iPhone had come about, but most people have no idea of where the Blackberry concept designs came from, who backed some specific features and how the whole thing was put together (both as an engineering concept and as a business deal).

RIM’s tendency to re-sell similar designs to different carriers as “exclusives” didn’t help much either, since it fragmented their engineering and support resources to no end dealing with maddeningly minute variations in specs and firmware.

Which is sad, because during the early years they were fairly open to people (or rather, corporate end-users) developing and deploying their own apps (and by that I mean real apps, with transparent server-side connectivity and all), and had the best user experience on a business phone ever, to this day.

I still think they do better integrated messaging than anyone else bar Microsoft.

But their resistance to change, their wanton dismemberment of QNX and, in a word, their hubris was their downfall, and I could see it all happening before me even as I (rather ironically) took over other roles to become the overall smartphone product manager2, with a foot deep into the then nascent Android and iPhone app space.

By that time, dealing with RIM as a second-tier negotiator was a pain, since whatever flexibility they previously had had for specs or business was now nil, and their market sense effectively negative.

There were plenty of things they got wrong in the app space, too. For instance, one of their biggest faux pas was Blackberry Maps - even before I started working on location-based services, they had everything in place and yet failed to capitalize upon it3.

My contact list on their side thinned out considerably over the years, leaving us to attend rows of utterly fruitless conference calls that eventually led to, well, no changes whatsoever in either direction or speed.

And all the while, we’d simply throw up our hands and give up pointing out that they were losing both competitiveness against other smartphones and mindshare among carriers. On the consumer side, only the globally struck high-level deals kept them on our portfolio - and even then, we were set impossible sales targets.

Yes, they sold just fine in the business segment - until other devices started delivering working Exchange integration that just worked (and without their proprietary server, which was another hassle for IT managers to deal with).

Because no matter what analysts and consultancies say, nobody in IT except for anal retentive paranoiacs, really wants to manage their employees’ phones. It’s a tremendous waste of time and resources, and the “bring your own device” policies and wide licensing of native Exchange support were only part of the reason their market share dropped.

For years on end, they gradually lost support across the board - from corporate customers, from carriers like ourselves who would get much better deals out of selling other devices, and from their minuscule hold on the consumer market. BBM is still excellent, their devices are still pretty good hardware-wise, but they’re just not worth the asking price anymore - a cheap Android device will do much more for less (if you disregard average build quality).

And BB 10, if it ever comes out, will surely be their OS division’s swan song.

So yes, it is very much like an airplane crash, but someone is obviously smoking a cigar on board - there’s no need whatsoever to go up to the crash site and drop a match, and, as many others, I don’t expect them to see the end of 2013 as an independent company.

Which is sad, really. They had so many chances to get things right (or at the very least to look around, catch the general drift of things and steer away from the ground).


  1. There’s no need for it, really. You just have to look at my page for the 9500 to get a feel. What really happened was, as usual, far more complex and more horribly fascinating than what you’d expect from the outside looking in. ↩︎

  2. I was doing mostly services and apps (portfolio and purchasing being merely indirect concerns) and eventually got “promoted” in an attempt to steer what was (for me) an even bigger but fortunately shorter crash. That eventually became the main reason for my wanting to take an extended leave from mobile industry lobbies, but, as they say, it was merely serendipity. ↩︎

  3. If you ever wondered whether there was any mapping solution worth using on a phone before Google Maps, well, wonder no more. It was pretty damn good, too - how far we’ve come. ↩︎