RIM’s Last Bullet

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It hasn’t been an easy year for RIM. The Playbook came out half-baked, their handset line has taken a pummeling from its ambitious competitors, the businesses and governments of the world are alternately hassling and blaming them, and as if that wasn’t enough, they just had a catastrophic global network failure and their olive branch is unlikely to fend off lawsuits. Did someone at RIM HQ break a mirror back in 2008?

The doomsayers (like us) are plentiful, saying that it’s all over, pointing to shrinking market share, incompetent management, and general inertia. But the game’s not up yet and their complacence would make sense, looking back in a few years, if it turns out they had one more bullet in the chamber. Did they fire six last-ditch efforts to reinvigorate the company, or only five? They don’t seem to know themselves. Well, they’re about to pull the trigger and find out.

I’ll be the first to say that this optimism isn’t exactly warranted, and I intend to cast it off like an old coat at the end of this post. The decisions RIM has made over the last few years have baffled me. But it’s essentially explainable in this way: they’re a square peg in a square hole, and they’ve been trying to make themselves round. It’s not the easiest task when millions worldwide depend on technologies they popularized a decade ago. Microsoft knows something about this, but they’ve had better success than RIM with the Xbox.

It just won’t do to simply say they’re out of the game, though. Some companies have a glass jaw (Myspace) – some companies take a big hit and come out swinging stronger than ever (Apple). Not that I expect RIM to bounce back and dominate the industry, but all it takes is a good product and a bit of luck to start them on the right track again. The new QNX BlackBerry line will almost certainly be a compelling product, at least for the BlackBerry set. What about the luck?

If RIM is confident about its services (last week’s outage notwithstanding), it’ll make its own luck. Their team will get out there and tell the big hitters of the world this: Apple and Android are full of holes, and any trustworthy software is from some dinky third party. Are these products that Boeing should be using, that governments should be using? RIM can play the security card, the fear card, the infrastructure card. They’ve been doing this for years, and not only have they been the only legitimate option that whole time, but the only company that could do it better? Bought ‘em!

As much fun as it is to poke fun at RIM for their complacency, it lapses into complacency of our own when we ignore the fact that this is a globally-respected brand with millions of customers who would probably rather stick around than leave. Underestimate a cornered rat and the peril of your own fingers.

The only trouble? All this advice only works in enterprise. RIM will have to abdicate their “prosumer” segment — not that there’s much to abdicate. Look, RIM guys, be realistic. It’s just too late. That ship failed when you failed to produce a credible competitor to the iPhone for four years. Nobody with a hundred bucks, browsing their carrier shop for a new smartphone, is going to pick up a BlackBerry. Not one in a hundred is going to buy one over an iPhone or Android device. RIM’s market is no longer these people, and let’s not kid around, that’s going to hurt. The question is whether RIM is man enough to rip the band-aid off.

RIM might have missed again and again, but let’s not forget that they still have a loaded gun, even if there is just the one bullet left in it. Because sometimes one is all it takes.