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Research In Traction | Really Little Wins
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If you’re an avid television watched you’ve likely noticed Research In Motion’s advertising campaign over the last couple of years. It shows small business owners telling stories about how important their Blackberry is to them and why they couldn’t possible do without it. The campaign really brings to light all of the failures that have permeated RIM over these las several quarters. Like an old boxer that thinks he’s got one more big fight left in him, RIM continues to drive forward in a ring they have no business entering. Many believed that wit the removal of Jim Balsille from their executive, things would be different. I’m here to tell you that until they “Think Different”, or at least “Think”, it’s business as usual and business is not booming.

The central theme to RIMs “smart”phone advertising campaign has been their ability to be used as a tool and not a toy. This is a relatively overt attack against Apple’s market share, trying to convince people that Blackberries are for real people, with real jobs. That’s a good idea. RIM has always been known as the business phone, so it makes sense that they would push forward on that premise. So obviously these ad campaigns show their customers using important business applications that are available on the Blackberry and nowhere else, like Twitter… and email… Did I miss something?

No you didn’t. RIMs point is that people who are running businesses need to be able to get their message out using the most up to date applications. Which is apparently why they put so much emphasis on the fact that you can use the most basic apps in their commercials. The problem is two-fold. The first is that any advertisement should be motivated by your company’s desire to show your competitive advantage. I this case RIM brings to light that writing apps for them is an afterthought. Once you’ve written an app for Apple and everyone is using it, it just makes sense that your jealous friend with Blackberries should have access to it as well. App development on RIM is akin to buying a pair of velcro hightops because your best friend just bought a really nice pair of  Nike Shox. Yes, they are sneakers. Sure, you can run in them. But you’re either going to upgrade or replace it in six months or less once you figure out that it’s not exactly the same thing. One app that RIM has recently advertised is called Urban Spoon. It’s a great application for finding restaurants randomly by location, type and cost. And when it was launched for iOS in 2007, it was very well received. It’s not even like buying your own shoes. It’s like getting your older brothers’ shoes when he gets bored of them.

Let’s take a look a the devices. Would you prefer touch capacitive buttons for anything you want to interact with or would you like to roll around a little tiny ball until it lies on the right prompt and then push down on that little ball when you’re where you want to be? Oh, your ball broke? That’s terrible. You’re going to need a new one of those. But don’t worry, in the next iteration we’re bringing out a trackpad that’s smaller than a toddlers pinky and doesn’t react as well as the ball. But at least it won’t break… As often. The fact is that people that text, tweet and email on an iPhone are faster than those people that do the same thing on Blackberries. It’s a much easier interface on the iPhone, unless you have one of those really awesome touchscreen Blackberries… which brings us to our next problem…the issue of choice.

A man walks into a cell phone store. Lined up along the wall are all the phones that every company has to offer. The customer has heard from his friends (just go with it) about how awesome (hold your laughter) their Blackberry is because it allows them to do amazing things like tweet and email but the man can’t remember what the model was. That’s ok, why would a company make more than 1 incredibly similar model… Well, it had a really small screen (eliminates 1-2 RIM devices) and it had a keyboard with multiple characters on a single button (eliminates nothing)… Oh and you could use Twitter on it (saw it on their commercial). While you’re trying to get an explanation from the local rep as to which of these clunky, thick, heavy, awkward devices is the best option for you, another customer walks in and makes her way to the Apple lineup. She’s looking for the one with Siri. She doesn’t need a lot of storage. She’d like it in white. Those are the questions. The answer is a white iPhone 4S with 16gb of storage. She walks out and tweets about how easy her experience was while the man ponders whether he would prefer kind of fat or really fat in a mobile phone profile. One of the first major moves that Steve Jobs made in 1997 when he returned to Apple was to clean house on a slew of ill-conceived product lines. His decisions weren’t perfect (see the Cube) but it reiterated one of Jobs’ most important theories; if you do it right, you only need to do it once.

Rather than reinventing the wheel with each successive product launch, making large scale profile and function changes that require extensive R&D and production costs, Apple has tweaked their product over several releases until they are ready for a major change. Take the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S. They are the same phone from a profile standpoint meaning your packaging doesn’t change, nor does most of your production process. Sure, there are changes, but they’re with individual parts rather than form factor; they’re with software improvements made possible through improved parts rather than wholesale interface changes. Research In Motion is an example of a perfectly adept nomenclature for a company that is always on the move. Unfortunately for RIM, there hasn’t been much forward progress. Perhaps RIT (Research In Traction) would be more appropriate. When you release multiple devices in such a short span, each with both significant form factor changes and infinitesimal process differentiation, you send a message that you either aren’t sure what people want or aren’t sure what people need.in either case, you’re not sure.

This variation in devices has caused a significant identity crisis at RIM. They pride themselves on a physical keyboard, insisting it’s superiority over touch screens and then  release a touch screen device. They insist that it’s all about work, not apps, and then push and market a very bare bones version of the app store. The “tools, not toys” mentality is not a bad ad campaign, but you then need to back it up with actual tools. Text messaging is not a tool. You can do that on a RAZR. Twitter is not a tool. You can do that on a 1990s Startec flip. Tools are things like iPhoto. Tools are things like Adobe Touch. Tools are things like Keynote. When you can create a fully functional presentation complete with complex images, charts and tables we can talk. Until then, you’re not a smartphone. You’re a portable email device. And that’s not an insult.

There are people that only want to be able to do a couple of things. They want to call. They want to text. They want to email. And for those people, for a long time, Blackberry was where it was at. They did email better than anybody for a very long time and the moment they moved away from that blueprint, all was lost. There’s a restaurant chain called Five Guys Burgers. They make burgers. They make fries. They make hotdogs. Aside from toppings your choices are a single burger or a double burger. When they opened, a lot of people said “you can’t stay in business when you only make 3 things”. They now have 400 restaurants in North America and the reason is quite simple to understand. You don’t have to do a lot of different things if you do one thing right. But you have to commit, one way or the other. Like a bride with cold feet, RIM wouldn’t commit. By simultaneously suggesting that you don’t need a bunch of different apps while putting or ads for your app store, you’re sending mixed messages.

When IBM got out of the computer business a lot of people thought they were done. How does a computer company get out of the computer business and stay in business? You do so by accurately assessing your abilities and then acting on them. IBM  recognized that ThinkPads weren’t the best product they had in their inventory. Their best product was themselves. Their knowledge of the business world, having been the primary solutions provider to a huge variety of industries left them with an unparalleled understanding of business processes. They parlayed that knowledge into becoming one of the world leaders in consulting. If you knew how many major companies use IBM to determine how they can become more efficient you’d be astounded. The willingness to reinvent yourself is what not only kept IBM in business but it made them relevant. When Jim Balsille left RIM, they had an opportunity to recognize the direction they were going and make a wholesale decision to change the direction of their motion. They chose to insist that they have never been stronger, despite significant technical and financial data contradicting that opinion.

Ego is a dangerous thing. I sincerely hope that RIM get their act together. I’m proud that a Canadian company became such a household name in such an incredibly competitive industry. But I don’t believe in nepotism for nepotisms’ sake. RIM needs to honestly evaluate where they’re at and make a choice. Don’t bet $100 on black and $100 on white. Don’t gamble. Fix the game. “Think Different”.