My gRIM Prediction

by Dave Michels

I’ve always liked RIM. I remember being in a meeting where everyone had a Blackberry and I had a Sidekick  – I think that was when my feelings of inadequacy really began. A cellular form of “genius envy”. RIM was a revolutionary product that brought email to mobile – resulting with the affectionate term of “Crackberry”.
That is an odd word, Crackberry. It was meant to imply the behaviors of a Blackberry user were similar to a crack addict:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Glassy eyes
  • Restlessness
  • Confrontational attitude
  • Erratic behavior
  • Signs of paranoia
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia, followed by sleeping for long periods

Luckily for RIM, the term mostly went away, not because the symptoms did but because they spread to other platforms. The iPhone and Android phones to name two. But RIM had the market share, the channel, every major carrier and every major email platform. They also had BES – the necessary proprietary server to make it all work with enterprise features… they burned the candle from both ends.

And who can forget the first US president declaring that his Blackberry would need to be pulled from his cold dead hands. Well not quite, but what a coup for RIM – a sitting US President insisting his Blackberry was critical to running the country.
What could possibly go wrong?

Last week I got to play with the Blackberry Torch. Their current attempt (and success) at a touchscreen phone. It’s an impressive device – touchscreen, keyboard, and apps. For a brief moment, I considered getting one. But hardware and email perfection are not enough, the world has changed dramatically since Obama took office and the mantra today is apps and an apps ecosystem.
Google and Apple have their enemies and those firms tend to use Blackberry’s. But that group is getting smaller and Microsoft’s Phone 7 is getting stronger. Microsoft’s coup over Nokia last week changes the game, and RIM is beginning to look awfully lonely. In fact, all of the recent innocuous headlines seem to go against RIM. Google released Android Honeycomb for tablets, iPhone is now available on Verizon, Even the President said his Blackberry is nearly useless to him.

If you’ll recall, Obama fought hard early on for the privilege of maintaining his prized BlackBerry, and while he eventually won out, we learned today that a grand total of ten individuals are authorized to ping it. Yeah, ten. Needless to say, he described that depressing fact as “no fun,”

Check out the general trajectory of these headlines:
Aug 2010: 50% of BlackBerry Users Want Apple or Android
Nov 2010: Study: iPhone 4 users happier than Android, BlackBerry users.
Nov 2010: Many more people would buy an iPhone – if they weren’t stuck with AT&T;
Dec 2010: U.S. Smartphone Battle Heats Up: Which is the “Most Desired” Operating System?
Jan 2011: Android Usage Increased 200% Over Past 3 Months
Feb 2011: Apple reportedly making smaller and cheaper iPhone models

But that’s ok, because RIM has a playbook and it says to bet its future on the PlayBook. The Playbook is RIM’s tablet, expected in March. If you listen to RIM it can do it all – shames the iPad, and is enterprise class, enterprise ready. Honestly, if RIM can pull it off, then they have a decent chance at remaining relevant. But I have my doubts.
For one, I still haven’t see it. Don’t get me wrong, RIM has been very generous with props. From CES to Lotusphere company executives can be seen carrying it around. But it doesn’t work. On the contrary, Andy Rubin showed off Honeycomb with Walt Mossberg and at CES months prior to its release.

At Lotusphere, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie did a on onstage demo. He was holding a PlayBook in his hands with a lit up screen, but never once touched it. Instead he showed a video of what it could do. I thought that perhaps a video was reasonable for such a large forum and was about to drop the matter until he bragged that the PlayBook could also connect to external monitors or projectors.

Lotusphere was in Jan/Feb 2011 and it is supposedly going to ship in March. In the RIM booth, they had a PlayBook on display encased in plastic. It was running a screen saver. In the IBM labs, they had demo PlayBook apps running, but they were on a PC running a PlayBook emulator. I asked several of the engineers if they had seen a PlayBook yet, and they all said no.

The problem is PlayBook is a first generation tablet from RIM, on a new OS called QNX which RIM acquired. The odds are against this device living up to even a fraction of its prerelease hype. And that will be very bad, and familiar… As was the case when Blackberry released its disastrous first touchscreen, the Storm, it rushed out in response to the iPhone. NYT’s Pogue dubbed it the “Blackberry Dud”. In the case of the Storm, RIM had a strong heritage in mobile phones it could leverage, the tablet business is a horse of a different color.

The stakes were lower then – neither Android or the iPhone were as polished as they are now. By the time the Playbook is released it will be up against the iPad 2 and several Android variants. Plus Microsoft and HP have announced tablet OS intentions.

The Playbook appears to have some real shortcomings that don’t get a lot of attention (yet). It has no native email and calendar integration… oops. The lack of applications will be a big problem, there is a rumor it might run Android apps through a virtual machine, but that will have some compatibility problems and consume more power. The battery is a problem for every device maker, but QNX was not designed for mobility. Just getting content, such as music, on the device could be a challenge using the Blackberry Desktop Download Manager as a reference point.

The PlayBook prop bandied about and encased in plastic at the booth sure seems like a smoke and mirrors game. I don’t expect it to ship in March, and when it eventually does ship, I fear the results may be grave. It may indeed become a leading cause of genius envy regarding other tablets.

As I opened, I like RIM. I mean them no harm and hope they can pull of their goals. The space needs ore competition, and MS and HP still seem like long shots. Though, I can’t help but conclude their future is grim. The phone business is shrining despite its massive head start and the PlayBook looks suspicious.