RIM: Where Is the Company We Knew and Loved?

By Tony Rizzo, Editor in Chief — October 14, 2011

Let’s turn back to the beginning of the problem: Research In Motion is hit with a service outage that is severe enough to immediately escalate internationally. We all know the details by now: a major piece of switching hardware failed (I believe this and so should you): then a failsafe rollover failed to roll over as it was supposed to.
 
Then the real problem emerges – so many email messages became backlogged that the entire system failed in some parts of the world. Once the actual hardware/networking problems were resolved, the delivery of all those backlogged messages began to slow down previously unaffected regions, escalating the problem – or at least created perceptions that the problem was growing rather than diminishing.

With 70 million subscribers in hand, this was not something that RIM could minimize or otherwise put into background mode. A great many users were affected – a great many of them badly enough to affect their ability to conduct business.
 
Initially RIM responded to the crisis in the right way, by quickly communicating and outlining the likely causes of the problem. But then RIM failed to follow up at the leadership level, choosing to stay quiet rather than getting and staying out ahead of the events that were going on.
 
Every one of those 70 million users want – and need – to know the answers to the following: 
  • Why weren't Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, co-CEOs, out in front of this over the entire week, showing empathy (ie, I feel your pain) and concern, and lending a constant reassuring voice that all would be well?
  • Why weren’t the co-CEOs prepared to commit to announcing a way to make users – primarily their major customers, the carriers, who aggregate the bulk of those users, and large scale BlackBerry enterprises - whole?
  • Why were they and the rest of the RIM team incapable of committing to a positive game plan – one that would seek to encourage users and give them a sense of security and hope – something that might possibly lead to the majority of those users perhaps giving RIM a pass?
Is it…a Lack of Enterprise Focus?

I’ve seen RIM do many great things over the last 10 years. Its execution was once stellar, and the company drove mobile excitement – in the enterprise. But…as much as it pains a great many of us who have been and still are long-time and loyal BlackBerry users, the answer to the question – relative to the mobile times we live in today – is beginning to look like a “yes” here. When a company spends so much time on defense something clearly is wrong. The company's recent inability to execute is now beginning to add up in non-trivial ways: 
  • RIM has fallen at least two years behind the competition in terms of high-end product delivery (hardware, mobile apps, all of it) – on both the consumer and enterprise side
  • The original collective bread-and-butter “enterprise team” at RIM has, as far as I can tell, been overwhelmed by the consumer side
  • The consumer factions have no “Jobsian” visionaries and have dropped the ball enough times that it has finally negatively impacted top-line revenue in a significant way
  • The PlayBook…enough said, though its enterprise potential is still there
Is it the tip of the iceberg or can RIM recover? When RIM finally delivers its “next-generation” QNX devices next year, it will still find itself two years behind Apple and perhaps just a bit less behind the Androidians on the consumer front. Meanwhile, Windows 8, it’s Metro-derived interface, and Win 8 tablets will be poised to begin making serious enterprise inroads in 2012 (okay, you may not believe me on Win 8 tablets, but I’m ready to take some bets).
 
In recent years RIM’s co-CEOs have brushed these very issues aside – consistently telling us, “wait, in a few months we’ll be back on top….” That has been RIM’s message for three years running, but RIM has not been able to repeat any of its former successes. The damage done – while not irreparable by any means – has left RIM in a potentially perilous position.
 
As in all things having to do with business, “show me the money” is what speaks loudest. RIM no longer has any money to show. It is this very simple issue that finally has caused RIM to become a business media piñata over the most recent two quarters.

The last thing RIM could afford at this point in time was to have its worst outage in history. There have only been a few, but with such negative noise about the company out there, the severity of this week’s outage was ramped up well beyond what it would have been in better times.
 
And yet, RIM could have saved face – it could have embraced the crisis, gotten out in front of it, and put itself out there with that empathy we asked about earlier. Instead the company mishandled it.
 
What’s an Enterprise to Do?

It was once the case that no enterprise IT team anywhere could possibly fathom dismantling its deeply embedded BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) infrastructure. This has long been RIM’s one advantage over its enterprise competitors. But when we speak to enterprises in today’s mobile-crazy environment we hear clear indications that these very same IT teams are now ready to potentially “rip it all out.”
 
Enterprises with extensive BES infrastructure build-outs now need to seriously investigate costs vs. security vs. BYOD mania vs. a stagnant RIM. RIM’s entrenched enterprise stranglehold is slowly but inescapably eroding. Enterprise RIM shops that conclude they can remain loyal to RIM are now in a position to negotiate tomorrow’s infrastructure and devices to their advantage.
 
And companies need to ask themselves: do we really need RIM’s NOC (network operations center) any longer? Perhaps some major federal government departments still do…but enterprises have to think seriously about this issue – the answer in some cases may very well be “no.”
 
This week’s outage was, ultimately, nothing more than an inconvenient moment for essentially all BlackBerry users. So they were without email for a short while. The world didn’t end, business continued, and every user recovered. Life goes on. In better days RIM would have been given a pass – hardware and software infrastructure failures do happen.
 
That inconvenient user moment is a significant issue for RIM. Lazaridis’ “I apologize, we’ve let you down” (I’m paraphrasing here) is not adequate as a corporate response. How RIM has handled the outage underscores more than ever, and at every level, two things: how badly the company continues to hurt itself and the fact that there is no credible game plan for moving forward. At least not yet.
 
I say all of this as “tough love.” I am not a happy camper at the moment – I am a decade-long BlackBerry user and I continue to loyally use a BlackBerry Torch, but I have significant envy of the shiny, high-performance devices that others are carrying around these days.
 
Can RIM right itself? Yes, absolutely. Some of us have some serious thoughts on this, though we’ll need to leave them for another day. Stay tuned.
 
RIM – come have a chat, let’s talk.

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