I should have known the game was up for BlackBerry (Nasdaq: RIMM; Toronto: RIM) when I attended the PlayBook launch event just about a year ago.
I almost skipped the launch (held at an uber-trendy party space in Manhattan), because that morning David Pogue of the New York Times and Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal had eviscerated the thing. “In its current half-baked form, it seems almost silly to try to assess it, let alone buy it,” Pogue wrote.
Flash forward to that night's event. There were co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, beaming as a few hundred hardcore BlackBerry fans and assorted press members surrounded them, wolfing down fancy appetizers and swilling white wine. The executives were about as in touch with reality as Romulus Augustus was in the dwindling days of Rome.
Not that there weren’t plenty of other mistakes along the way. Here is a list.
Losing touch. A core mistake of RIM’s was not grasping that, little by little, the BlackBerry morphed from the must-have tech bling circa 2005 to tech debris in 2011. A lot of the fuel for enterprise BYOD has been worker refusal to carry BlackBerries. Users are willing to pay the price to buy their own iPhones. When BlackBerry suddenly turned uncool, RIM never caught on.
Storm. The awful BlackBerry Storm, launched in 2008, was supposed to be RIM’s iPhone killer. Yeah, right. I had a loaner, which I boxed up and returned weeks before the loan period expired. This phone had no likable features. And its release had been delayed and delayed some more as BlackBerry tweaked it -- to no good result. Even the company admitted that the device was “buggy.”
PlayBook’s email shortfall. Talk about perverse engineering decisions. When the PlayBook was released, it came into the world without a native email app. There was no easy way to get mail from corporate servers with the PlayBook alone. None. It wasn’t until February 2012 that RIM finally released an email app.
PlayBook’s BlackBerry dependency. The PlayBook email problem ties into a bigger one: The PlayBook was engineered to be parasitic on the BlackBerry. Without the latter, the former limped. At a time when BlackBerry sales already were cratering, why would a company decide not to seek a fresh market for a compact, seven-inch tablet with a genuinely snazzy screen and wonderful computing power under the hood?
PlayBook’s lack of apps. To effectively kill off the PlayBook, RIM made it nearly impossible for app developers to get approval for a PlayBook app. I have heard so many loud complaints from developers, most of whom gave up long ago. And there still is no Skype, no Kindle, and not much of anything useful that runs on PlayBook.
The sideloading debacle. If RIM can take a bad situation and make it worse, it will. That's what it has done in recent days in the sideloading debacle. Has RIM blocked sideloading of bootlegged apps on to PlayBook, or hasn’t it? Nobody knows, and the company seems determined to obfuscate. Why? Again, who knows? But you cannot blame this one on Balsillie and Lazaridis, who have left the building. And maybe that is the worst part of the sideloading mess: You can only blame the execs who remain in charge for mangling their messaging and driving still more users away.
India. RIM also managed to muddy the reputation of its core BlackBerry with the cave-in to India’s government. RIM has agreed to turn over encryption keys for some BlackBerry email traffic to state security forces. This can’t reassure businesses, or inside-the-Beltway CrackBerry users, who believed in the BlackBerry because of its security.
Security. Even before the recent episode in India, belief in the BlackBerry’s security had started to erode. And RIM never grasped that, with iOS 4 (released in June 2010), Apple pulled very close to the BlackBerry in terms of security. Many security pros still give the BlackBerry an edge, but only a slight one. And, as ever, RIM has ignored the changed dynamics of the race.
Despite RIM’s mistakes, we should applaud the company for one thing. In technology, many companies are one-trick ponies (witness Palm, which never really moved beyond a PDA). The BlackBerry, in contrast, successfully morphed from an email-only device (a connected PDA) and added voice. But it has never succeeded in delivering a fast, pleasing Web experience.
Which brings us to the mistake that may have been the coup de grace for RIM.
Failure to make HTML5 fly. RIM could have owned HTML5 on the BlackBerry. I can hear the marketing pitch: “Beyond the training wheels that are apps, the whole Web in your hand.” But the Waterloo engineers could not crack the code. And that probably is the mistake that will put RIM out of the game.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.