Sometimes it pays to move on, no matter how much you have invested in something.
This summer Freakonomics Radio ran an episode titled “The Upside of Quitting,” which poked holes in the old adage “winners never quit and quitters never win.” Many people, the program argued, are unable to recognize that they have committed themselves to an endeavor that is failing. The more “sunk costs” someone has in such an endeavor, the less likely he or she is to give up on it. No matter how hard it might be to admit it, sometimes it pays to just walk away and try something new.
And here we have Research In Motion (RIM), inventor of the once mighty BlackBerry, so popular a device that users dubbed it the “CrackBerry.” The BlackBerry was THE enterprise mobility device of the pre-iPhone era. A reliable platform for mobile email, contacts and calendars that offered mobility managers centralized control and rock-solid security, the BlackBerry made RIM a tech superpower.
That era of dominance is over. The ever-steepening decline of the BlackBerry, along with recent disasters like RIM’s global service outage, have a lot of people writing RIM obituaries. It’s prompted me to ask myself: Is it time for RIM to walk away from the BlackBerry?
RIM was almost too successful with the BlackBerry brand. The device is a household name while no one aside from IT managers and tech media know who RIM is. Mainstream marketing of any RIM device is pegged to the BlackBerry brand, not RIM. RIM is a BlackBerry company. What else can it be?
We may find out the answer to that question soon. Android and Apple iOS devices have destroyed the BlackBerry’s share of the consumer mobile device market, and now it’s eating into RIM’s sweet spot: Enterprise mobility. Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) just announced that more than 30% of large enterprises (10,000+ employees) who are current BlackBerry users plan to migrate to a different platform within the next year. In its press release, EMA said:
“This represents a a significant reduction from the platform’s current domination of the large enterprise market space with 52% of mobile device users in that demographic actively using a BlackBerry device as part of their job function.”
RIM’s mobility architecture remains sound (despite the recent outage) but the company has struggled to keep pace with innovation in the device market. When Apple upended the smartphone industry with the iPhone in 2007, RIM responded with the BlackBerry Storm, an ill-fated try at a touchscreen smartphone that failed to catch on.
Then Apple’s iPad blew up the touchscreen tablet market and RIM responded with the PlayBook, which enjoyed strong early sales but got panned by gadget reviewers who said the software wasn’t fully baked. They also questioned RIM’s requirement that PlayBook users tether the tablet to a BlackBerry via Bluetooth in order to access native email and calendar applications. A nice security feature for enterprise IT, but ultimately limiting to users who were already impressed by the elegance of the iPad and some of the better Android tablets. Amid news that retailers were slashing PlayBook prices last month, gadget bloggers jumped on speculation by an investment analyst who suggested RIM had given up on the device, a rumor that RIM vehemently denied.
Then came this month’s service outage which turned 70 million BlackBerrys into bricks for several days. This has been a PR and customer service disaster, which prompted publications to come up with cute headlines like “RIM’s Outage: Nail in Coffin?” and “Is Research In Motion the walking dead?”
It’s clear that the BlackBerry is in serious decline. Does it pay for RIM to stick it out and keep investing in it? This week at the BlackBerry DevCon America conference, RIM unveiled BBX, its next-generation device operating system. BBX is a combination of BlackBerry OS and QNX (the PlayBook tablet operating system). In a market where Windows Phone 7, Android and Apple iOS are all winning over users, does it make sense for RIM to evolve the BlackBerry OS like this? We saw Palm try to do this with WebOS. That didn’t go so well. Nokia walked away from Symbian and embraced Windows Phone 7. Should RIM walk away from BlackBerry?
How would you do that…. give up on the brand that defines your company? At this point, is it the BlackBerry user experience that RIM can hang its hat on? Or is it its middleware (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) and its network operating centers (NOCs)? Is RIM’s strength in its devices or its architecture?
Last May RIM announced that it was extending BlackBerry Enterprise Server support to Android and iOS devices. Perhaps that’s where RIM’s future lies. Incorporate non-BlackBerry devices into the architecture that won the hearts and minds of IT managers everywhere. Build value there. Sink R&D into that, not the next-generation BlackBerry. It’s not clear that going in that direction will be enough. The market for a mobility architecture might not be as large as one for a hot, new smartphone, but at least it’s a new direction that might work. It’s just a question of whether RIM wants to let go of device that it has so much invested in. And BlackBerry needn’t give up on devices, either. Instead, it could develop Android or Windows devices that are completely tied into the RIM architecture? Can RIM do that? Does it want to?
Sometimes it pays to quit. It doesn’t have to mean defeat. It can mean that you’ve decided to fight another battle that you think you can win.