By Jordan Crook
Today is BlackBerry Jam, RIM's developer conference or WWDC equivalent. It's RIM's (RIMM) moment to redefine, rejuvenate, and re-establish itself in the world. Whether or not the company can pull it off, however, is an entirely different matter.
BlackBerry 10, RIM's brand new platform, has been delayed, run into naming issues, and seen the transfer of power go from the company's co-founders, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, to long-time employee Thorsten Heins. The conference will prove whether or not RIM is now adaptable - something for which the company has been publicly flogged for the past year.
We took a trip up to Waterloo to speak with some of the employees ahead of the event, namely Vivek Bhardwaj, Head of Software Portfolio EMEA for RIM, and as I walked away I felt less sure of who RIM is and what the company is about than I ever have before.
See, one of the first things we heard walking in the door was that RIM has changed with Heins at the top. When I mentioned the past year and described the company as "lacking flexibility," Victoria Berry, senior manager of PR and social media went ahead and threw out the word "arrogant."
"Yes," I said. "Exactly."
They recalled Thorsten's first earnings call, during which he admitted he would consider licensing the new BB10 platform and/or selling off the company if the options proved viable. They said partners were optimistic, and that the company was generally undergoing a major change in the way they looked at both themselves and the landscape.
But then we started talking about where RIM is headed.
Bhardwaj admitted that RIM, up until this point, has lacked a clear vision and identity. "We've never had a clear vision as to who we are, what we're for, or the purpose of our strategy," said Bhardwaj. "The conference is all about setting the stage for that."
I was pleased at his conviction on behalf of the company, and he hit the nail right on the head. In today's competitive landscape, the BlackBerry is no longer a hot, new device. It's a BlackBerry. It's almost a joke.
But then he went on:
We've identified in this world that there is an audience that not only appreciates what we build today but has this desire to really connect to the certain things in their life that they place value on, the things they value in their smartphones, and the things they value on their tablets. We've found that it's different to what an iOS or Android user would put value on.
We're going to set the stage for how important relationships are to BlackBerry users, as well as how important communities, networking, and messaging are to them. We have this legacy of email and we'll continue to expand, but we haven't taken the time to explain to people why messaging is important to our audience.
That sounded diplomatic enough, albeit vague with a touch of Lazaridis-style ego. (Remember this: "We've been singled out because we're so successful around the world. It's an iconic product. It's used by business, leaders, celebrities, teenagers. We've just been singled out… because of our success.")
I asked him to continue:
We want to make sure people understand who we are as a company. It's important to know that BlackBerry isn't for everyone. I don't mean that in an egotistical or selfish manner, but there's an audience that appreciates and desires what we deliver as an experience.
We need to make sure we're messaging to them first and foremost.
That was the moment he lost me.
See, RBC released a report just yesterday saying that RIM may drop below the 5 percent mark in terms of market share, while Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) gobble it up. Of course, this is an issue greater than numbers. Developers are far less likely to put money, time, and energy into a platform that comprises so little of the market, and thus consumers are less likely to buy hardware that stands so far behind its competition in terms of app selection.
Yet, from what Mr. Bhardwaj was telling me, it sounded like RIM is reverting back to its core competency: messaging. It was impossible for me to be sure of that of course - he had been speaking very generally. So I asked for specifics.
I pushed him about what that strategy and vision is really all about, specifically, who exactly the RIM audience is, and why they value BlackBerry messaging in particular?
We've done a lot of research on BlackBerry people, and we've seen some patterns. The research shows us that these people are hyper-connected, social networking is important to them, organizing their time is a priority, and relationships are really valuable to them. We also see that they want to be able to act and message in the moment, spread things instantly, and share things instantly. It's very important to these people.
You see now why I'm frustrated by the whole "BlackBerry isn't for everyone" thing now, right?
Essentially, RIM wants to be the king of messaging again. iMessage does basically the same exact thing as BBM now, but on an iPhone, and there are dozens of SMS-substitute apps (like WhatsApp) on both the App Store and Google Play. Granted, RIM still dominates in terms of secure corporate email and enterprise familiarity/reliability, but that consumer market has wandered elsewhere, searching for a little magic instead of a trackpad.
Messaging isn't really a focus at all in today's competitive landscape. Just because people are hyper-connected, socially active online, cognizant of their schedule, and constantly in communication, it doesn't mean that they're "BlackBerry people". Hell, we buy phones to communicate, and text messaging has outweighed voice calls for a while now.
Duh! Messaging (and better yet, seamless quick messaging) is important. But what about everything else?
Well, apparently everything else isn't really important to "BlackBerry people."
There's this market full of people who care first and foremost about messaging and social networking. Yes, apps are important, browsing is important, and games are important, but those aren't what they value when they first use a smartphone.
They desire living technology - things they connect to and live and breathe by. BlackBerry is something people are always connected to. It's an extension of their arm. That's the type of audience we're going for. What we're trying to do is take the user interface and the design, and map it to the things they value like conversations and community, while making sure there's no lag.
I shouldn't have to say this, but clearly both iOS and Android were built around the idea that apps, browsing and games are highly important. You don't need me to tell you how those stories have progressed.
"To my point earlier," Bhardwaj continued, "it's not for everyone. It's not meant to be a platform that encompasses the world."
Part of me, a very small part, understands what RIM is trying to do. They want to reshape the argument to say: maybe an Android or iPhone can do anything and everything, but a BlackBerry does the most important things really really well. He mentioned that RIM will move into the automotive space, leveraging the fact that QNX is baked into 300 million+ cars. "We want to be the platform that connects and simplifies the relationships, services and content, and intelligent things," he explained.
In fact, he used a somewhat weird example to further describe what he was getting at, which involved the forthcoming, and much talked-about, intelligent fridge. He explained that the BlackBerry owner would walk by the grocery store, and immediately be notified that they're out of milk. Meanwhile, an iPhone user would be sent directly to iTunes to buy a song about milk, whereas an Android owner would be sent to a Wikipedia page to learn the history of milk.
While Apple wants to sell you content and Google wants your browsing history, BlackBerry simply wants to connect you in a practical way. It sounds glorious, but that's the vision, not the reality.
The reality is a brand new virtual keyboard, a desire to connect to developers with simplified SDK tools and device seeding programs, and an entirely new operating system (not a refresh - they're really serious about that).
Yet, RIM isn't ready to stray from their physical keyboards. Ms. Berry in PR mentioned that "of the 80 million users, I'm not sure how many but it's a high percentage that say they like the keyboard."
Well, the keyboard is quite nice. It's intuitive, quick, and takes the soft keyboard to a new level. And the notion that RIM will make life a little easier on developers is a really pleasant thought. I can see it now - devs coding away and porting over Android apps to their brand new PlayBook, handed to them free of charge by a BlackBerry evangelist living out in the field.
But will developers really want to invest time, energy and most importantly, cash into this platform? Will a new keyboard be enough to save RIM?
A magic moment, one that changes the entire ecosystem (much like the iPad, iPod, and iPhone) will save RIM. A moment that takes the company out of the past, and even out of the present, and proves that they are the future. Seamless and easy car integration a la QNX, or something like the fridge example Mr. Bhardwaj offered, would do that. But again, those are just a vision, not the reality.
The reality is that "BlackBerry isn't for everyone."