Research In Motion had a tough week last week.
That's an understatement, and I'm not just talking about a stock drop of more than 20 per cent. The underestimation is when financial pundits talk about RIM's issues as if they only happened last week. It wasn't last week . this has been going on for years. Many think RIM is faltering because they aren't innovating like Apple or Google (Android is a Google initiative). This isn't the case, either. RIM is not a company of innovation. RIM is a technology company that has evolved (quickly) from an entrepreneurial startup into a global business, and those two entities are diametrically opposed. Comparing Apple to RIM is like comparing Jay-Z to The Beatles. Both serve a purpose to the music industry and legion of fans, but they could not be farther apart when looking at the core of who they are and what they stand for.
You can argue that one is better than the other, but the point is that both are successful in executing on their own vision and artistry.
RIM founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie had a vision when they launched BlackBerry in the 1990s - a device that would enable anyone to access their email from anywhere and everywhere. Email in the palm of your hand was a bold vision statement in a world that was just getting acclimatized to mobile phones and pagers (remember when people would be frowned upon for using their mobile phones in a restaurant or while on public transit?). At RIM's inception, they were entrepreneurs: people who had a vision for the future. A vision very few others could see, feel or understand. A vision that saw these technology professionals invest their own money, blood, sweat and tears. It paid off... and they were right. Professionals (and now, even casual consumers) did want to access their email in a mobile fashion.
The transition from entrepreneur to business professional is where the friction lies.
While entrepreneurs have a vision for the future, most business professionals have two main focuses: to mitigate risk and minimize mistakes. A business without a culture of entrepreneurship will struggle to evolve - especially if they are in an industry that not only relies on entrepreneurship, but is also driven by - and demands - innovation. Is it a crime against humanity if RIM's only success is the invention of the BlackBerry and mobile email? Hardly. Is it RIM's fault for not picking up on the evolution of the mobile Web, the app economy or our new-found love of tablets? It's only their fault if they were pursuing greatness in those domains - as a core competency.
These individuals have managed to do something truly unique in business culture, which is to blend their entrepreneurship and early-stage, startup-risk taking within the context of a global business that isn't constantly attempting to mitigate risk and minimize mistakes. Many people didn't think Apple (a computer manufacturer) could never successfully produce and market a smartphone and those same people probably questioned a search engine's ability to create a mobile platform like Android. Is it ironic those same people are wondering why BlackBerry hasn't evolved beyond email?
The trick with innovation lies within it's own definition.
You have to be able to innovate: To do something that your competitors have not yet done. PlayBook's lack of success (RIM says that only 500,000 tablets are in market) compared with the iPad is indicative of this. The PlayBook was announced long after iPad's initial in-market success and prior to the launch of iPad 2. By the time the iPad 2 had come to market (which, in and of itself, was a technical innovation over the first one), RIM's PlayBook launch was still unconfirmed. In the end, PlayBook, was a "me too" product instead of an innovation (and one that was somewhat comparable in terms of technical specification to the first generation iPad).
I'm no RIM hater.
Prior to switching over to an iPhone last Christmas, I had been using a BlackBerry loyally since their initial launch. Why the switch? Slowly - over time - my mobile needs evolved from email and phone to a more holistic Web experience. Beyond that, as a digital marketing professional, I don't think we'll see an Internet experience that is both big screen and mobile-based... there will simply be a connected consumer and mobile will be the primary gateway (this was further validated when IDC announced that there were more smartphones than PCs sold in the last quarter of last year). If RIM can't innovate with new devices and applications toward that end, we (consumers, business professionals and investors) must be confident in their success as an enterprise email platform. RIM can innovate in this space (they're proven). Now, whether or not they can compete and innovate against companies such as Apple or Google? Only time - and a massive culture shift - will tell.
In the end, RIM's Achilles Heel is not marketing or technology... it's innovation.
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:
- Montreal Gazette - Innovation vs. technology.
- Vancouver Sun - Innovating beyond the BlackBerry, RIM's Achilles heel.