RIM:Back From the Brink?

by Dave Michels

I am a sucker for the underdog. I love the battle, the strategy, the market dynamics. The ‘We’re Not Number One, So We Try Harder’ mentality. I think that’s why I was originally attracted to Android. I saw the potential of the OS early in the game (bought the first Android phone).  I’ve been an Android user from get the get go, but now they are the market leader. Time to move on? I’m watching Blackberry closely, and I like what I see. 

I met with Steve Newman recently at the Defrag Conference – he’s the Sr. Director User Data and Identity Software at Research In Motion. He had on him a Blackberry 10 device and I got to try it – the new BB10 products are scheduled to launch Jan 30 2013.

Many people are quick to dismiss Blackberry – too little too late. I don’t agree. Cell phones have at best a two year lifespan, and are constantly being purchased. Each new purchase seems fresh, with loyalty and prior purchases only one of many considerations. Secondly, RIM isn’t new to this. Yes, their world was turned upside down and yes they responded too slowly, but that doesn’t mean they are dead. The company, like Apple, produces its own hardware and software. It has lots of current customers, and unlike Apple and Android, RIM actually understands and addresses the needs of corporate IT. Many large organizations, like Hasbro, continue to stick with RIM (no BYOD). Additionally, many reports are showing that BYOD does not offer cost savings and raises significant security issues. 

RIM is regularly attacked for responding too slowly, but that’s partially unfair. They responded too quickly to the iPhone with their first touchscreen phone. It was whopping failure. I remember David Pogue’s review being very harsh. You can’t reinvent products that quickly and the imitation game offers the best outcome of ‘as good as’ rather than ‘better than.’ Reinvention takes time. The company has completely reinvented – new hardware, new processors, and a new operating system (QNX). The result is what is referred to as BB10.

The timing isn’t all bad, in fact I think Apple peaked. The ace up BB10’s sleeve is Android. RIM made it very simple for Android apps to become BB10 apps. That strategy offers a stronger potential library of apps than Microsoft’s approach of enticing Windows developers. RIM is nothing to dismiss. It has the following going for it:

  • Strong knowledge and experience with corporate IT
  • Android Apps to easily attract
  • Integrated hardware and software, experience in manufacturing
  • Strong patent library
  • Strong carrier relationship (carriers want RIM to recover)
  • Steve Jobs is dead
  • Nokia is weak, and Microsoft is new/early at this
  • Strong customer base (smaller than it was, but still strong)
  • QNX
  • Interesting acquisitions in its portfolio (GIST, Tungle, Ubitexx, TAT, Newbay, Paratek,  The Astonishing Tribe)
  • RIM announced that it has received FIPS 140-2 security certification allowing the BB10 to be deployed by government agencies.

Here’s some thoughts and observations from my conversation with Steve.

  • Key to the BB10 is this new UI concept called the Hub. I only got to play with it briefly but it’s more useful and efficient than Android’s home screen and Microsoft’s tiles. RIM describes the Hub as: “All messages, notifications, feeds, and calendar events come into the BlackBerry Hub and no matter what the user is doing with the device, with a simple gesture, they can peek into the Hub at any time.”
  • RIM – due to GIST – is taking a much deeper and more strategic look at contacts. RIM is looking at “contact ranking” which looks at all kinds of interactions (email, phone calls, calendar, social interactions, org charts) to figure out who and why people are important in your circle. It applies the notions of strong and weak ties that are getting so much attention in collaboration. It also has the ability to “mine contacts” for news based on social networks.
  • The new devices will offer a degree of life balance. Steve was using terms like work and personal perimeters. I find it annoying that facebook and so many other sites are hell bent on destroying the line between work and personal, it’s refreshing to hear that Blackberry is trying to distinguish these roles – which are indeed very different.
  • The phone itself was the same thinness as my Android Samsung Nexus (the only thing I could measure it with). It has a slightly smaller screen.
  • I could not get any details on maps, but RIM understands that Maps are required (along with turn by turn directions) and closely watched Apple’s missteps. They clearly have a map strategy using third party providers, but Steve was not prepared to discuss it. Note: Apple and Google have spent billions on maps, far more than RIM can so they need to be creative here.
  • Deep features around “create, capture, and share” regarding the camera.
I also got a glimpse of what Steve is working on in the labs. Some very interesting things to say the least. One challenge area has to do with user authentication. UserID and password are a start, but as time goes by the level of assurance that the current user is the authenticated user declines. One option is to have the user re-enter the password, but there’s some fascinating passive options including:
  • Voice Signatures – different than voice recognition, but actually identifying an individual by voice (my voice is my passport, verify me)
  • Gait Signatures – user identification by walk/gait characteristics
  • Ear Lobe Signatures – earlobes are almost as unique as finger prints.
  • Geofencing: Can the phone assume things based on location?

What becomes fascinating is using these data in various combinations. For example, can the phone conclude something if you are running in a location where you normally walk? Can it determine when to send calls directly to voice mail and when to interrupt based on who is calling, time of day, calendar, and location?

RIM has had a tough time, but they company has been hard at work planning for the next generation. I expect great things.