I want to believe in a comeback for Research in Motion (RIMM). I've even bought some call options, because I think that the market is handicapping the Canadian maker of BlackBerry smartphones and tablets too harshly. But every once in a while, RIM's management does something that makes you think, "maybe all of the shorts are right."
Research in Motion's management has been criticized as being one of the weaknesses of the company ever since (and even before) its fall from grace. Critics have said that the dual-CEO structure was inefficient and prevented the change necessary to evolve in the face of competition from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Android (NASDAQ:GOOG) phones. Even after the dual-CEOs were replaced with a lone chief recently, a quote akin to "staying the course" regarding company initiatives deflated the positive feelings brought about by the change.
A more recent management misstep happened when Michael Clewley, the PlayBook product manager, was interviewed by Engadget, an electronics blog. Engadget interviewed him to talk primarily about the release of PlayBook's 2.0 operating system, which was a major event for RIM because of the increased functionality of its struggling tablet and because it was proof that RIM could keep a promise made to its customers and itself. (The interview is worth reading in its entirety if you're a RIMM shareholder, short, or otherwise interested party.)
The interview begins with some softball questions that allow Clewley to speak as he wants to about the PlayBook's 2.0 operating system update. Throughout the entire interview he is blowing hot air about how the PlayBook wasn't broken to begin with and is wonderful now, but there was a particular exchange that was uniquely bothersome. This baffling question and answer happen towards the end of the interview. The question is in bold, and the answer is spin on a level that would make the late Steve Jobs blush.
The low-end PlayBook is roughly the same price as the Kindle Fire with current promotions. What does this product bring to the tablet that other tablets don't?
The big feature that we have right now is social everywhere. If you look back at BlackBerry, there's a lot of things that we do for users. The devices anticipate what your moves are. They give you the information before you know you need it, and I think that's what some of the things that we've delivered in OS 2. It's a really good device for someone who wants a really great tool, but also likes to have fun because we have a lot of really great applications.
I have a Playbook running 2.0 (and a much smarter Android cell phone) and I don't understand what Clewley's answer is supposed to mean. Unless there is a brainwave-detection chip inside the PlayBook, I'm not quite sure how any device can "anticipate" what my moves may be. It's such a shockingly ridiculous claim about a tablet that took half of a year just to get up-to-speed with its peers that it is simply laughable - and accordingly, most of the comments to the article were made by technology enthusiasts ridiculing the ridiculousness of the above passage, and the entire interview.
As a product owner and investor, it's disappointing to see that this delusion and puffery is the way that upper management handles an excellent media opportunity. Consumers appreciate honesty; it would have been refreshing for Clewley to admit that PlayBook 1.0 OS was lacking, but that the company was proud of 2.0's inclusion of consumer wants and company ideas. Then, because it's not very difficult and not very offensive to put a positive spin on the future, Clewley could have talked about RIM's upcoming plans for tablet consumers; instead, he deflected a question about any upcoming products or features.
But spinning the past is virtually impossible, and having an executive try to do this while talking to one of the most important electronics news sources just makes it seem like the company is out of touch with reality. His answers make it seem like the RIM truly believed that the problem with PlayBook 1.0 (at $500, without important features) was that consumers didn't appreciate the device, but not the product itself was lacking.
While this interview was not a great moment, this is an opportunity to discuss how PlayBook 2.0 is actually a job well-done by RIM. Even though the PlayBook ownership community is small, RIM made a promise to improve the tablet, and they followed through. The tablet now boasts a best-in-class browser and multiple unique features (though mostly only relevant to BlackBerry handset owners) packed into a form factor that some users may prefer; for internet browsing, I don't think any other tablet beats the PlayBook. The improved messaging and email, coupled with the unique Bridge capabilities, make a PlayBook & BlackBerry combination one of the most functional marriages in mobile electronics. Most importantly, at $200, there's arguably no better value than the PlayBook at this point. However, at $200, it's also doubtful that BlackBerry is making any money on devices.
In a best-case scenario, everything good about PlayBook 2.0 is a sign of things to come at Research in Motion. The company has been promoting the launch of new phones powered by a new operating system, BlackBerry 10, which are expected to hit the market by the end of the year. Research in Motion has already kept consumers waiting for too long, as many consumers have surely picked up a competitor's phone while they've been kept waiting by RIM. However, an excellent product always has the ability to win customers back. As an investor and technology enthusiast, I just hope that the product designers and engineers behind PlayBook 2.0 are the ones running the show at RIM; if it's the public relations department, the company may be doomed. Now's a great time to place bets on RIMM; they are teetering on a precipice, and will soon fall into the abyss or make a glorious return.
Disclosure: I have a small long position in RIMM via calls despite being uncertain about the future prospects of the company.