It’s rare (but not unheard of) that I venture off into non-iPad related news and thoughts, but with RIM’s recent troubles and its future in doubt, I decided to take a look back and give RIM some of its undue credit. So, without further ado…
Oh, RIM. Where did you go wrong? You were once the Canadian tech industry darling, and now, you’re the butt of every joke from any tech journalist or blogger (including myself, countless times). Having survived nearly a decade in Waterloo, I lived under RIM’s shadow during parts of its meteoric rise to tech stardom. I had friends who worked for them either as co-op students and even now as full time employees. And now, here I am lamenting the eventual death of this company.
Let me start by saying that I love RIM as a company. I had to. Waterloo and RIM are more or less synonymous. RIM’s fame has promoted Waterloo as a great place to live and work, attracting bright, young engineering talent to the city who ultimately work for RIM. It’s how I chose the University of Waterloo for my undergrad! The company recognizes that and has made tremendous efforts to give back to the universities and colleges in the area. In my day, it was almost unheard of that a major campus event wasn’t partly sponsored by RIM.
That aside though, there were a lot of problems with the company itself (outside of it being a one-trick pony). Because of its location (about an hour to an hour and a half from Toronto), you can call Waterloo somewhat secluded and insular. Given there are two fantastic universities and a top college in the city, it didn’t really have an outlet for creativity and design. Both of these factors explain much of RIM’s successes and flaws.
RIM was renowned for service stability and impeccable business continuity, primarily because it attracts local university grads who understood the rigour and effort necessary to maintain large global systems from their coursework. This gave the company the ultimate edge in pitching Blackberry adoption to large corporations. On the flip side, because of the company’s need to maintain its uptime and quality of service, it originally housed much of its global infrastructure in Waterloo. Major power failures and even minor natural disasters could (and did) knock out BBM and other essential Blackberry services at a whim.
Let’s be honest – RIM wasn’t known for its design and creative genius. First and foremost, because they never needed to design slick UIs and create user experiences for the general public. It has always been a business platform that was wildly adopted for day to day use because it was the best phone on the market that offered services that nobody else was providing. If you doubt what I’m saying, try to find an old Blackberry circa 2002 and you’ll see what I mean. The thing was hideous, but it did set the standard for what smartphones should have been. It had an icon based interface, and offered a unique (and I dare say, innovative) interface with its scroll wheel. It was also one of the first phones to have a full QWERTY keyboard, showing that text and email were the new ways to communicate on the go, rather than with your voice. As the years progressed, though, the ultimate design for the phones changed little, oftentimes with minor variations of a tried and true design.
While there are arguments to be said about not changing a good thing, they were completely blindsided by the Apple-Google one-two punch. It’s somewhat ironic, to be honest, that a tech-focused town like Waterloo that’s known for innovation and new ideas would also be home to one of the slowest innovators in recent memory. The problem was two-fold. One was the internal culture of RIM, where its insular nature away from major tech-hubs puts it at a disadvantage from developments outside of the small city. However, the second (and probably more important) issue was the dual-CEO structure of the corporation. While the two CEOs have relatively well-defined roles, their different backgrounds (tech vs. business) often caused paralysis in their overall strategy. The most striking (and recent) example of which was Jim Balsillie’s departure from the company, apparently due to general dissatisfaction with the company’s unwillingness to try something different, rather than trying to chase a market that is moving faster than they’re able to cope. Recent stumbles, from poor marketing to an even poorer Playbook product are only a result of years of neglect and resting on laurels that were fading all too quickly.
It really is unfortunate that RIM’s fortunes are turning sour so quickly, but perhaps it’s for the best. With layoffs of highly competent engineers and the appeal of the Waterloo tech region, there is a startup boom happening in area, attracting venture capital and outside interest to the once-quiet town. Google’s mobile division has a nice foothold in the area, and there are plenty of new iOS developers sprouting up all over. While RIM will probably fade into the sunset in the next year or two, at the very least, it’s remnants will prosper on in new ventures that will ultimately benefit the technology industry for the foreseeable future.
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