Why is RIM running away from BlackBerry in order to try and keep up, never mind compete, with Apple's iPad, never mind iPhone? Georgia, Chad, Ally and I spoke about this at length on last Sunday's iPad Live! podcast but given RIM's financial results and accompanying comments this week, I think it's appropriate to get some text behind it now as well.
Note: I'm not going to use direct quotes in this piece. I need a translator to understand RIM's co-CEO's, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. They don't speak any language I'm familiar with, not English, French, Klingon, or marketing. There's no app for translating what they're saying lately, and certainly no web service (zing! reserved, as you'll see later). I've read what CrackBerry Kevin and Sascha Segan, geniuses both, have managed to extract but I'm still baffled. Or RIM is still baffling. I think it's the latter.
BlackBerry is the ultimate communications device for those whose hierarchy of needs are founded on communication. While competition from third-party IM apps is growing, for those who need instant, addictive, information exchange and the best tiny keyboard in the business, BlackBerry still has no equal. It also has no future. It grew from a pager and has been bound and gagged and kept from growing further by the increasingly outdated, increasingly restrictive Java2ME-based architecture. Push-wise their technology is fantastic. Hardware-wise their build quality is among the best. OS-wise they're dead in the water.
Apple faced this with OS 9, bought NeXT, and now we have Mac OS X and iOS. Microsoft faced this with Windows ME and Windows Mobile 6.5, merged NT on the desktop and re-architected on the mobile side, and now we have Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7. Palm faced this with Palm OS and the Treo, went back to the drawing board and came out with webOS and the Pre. Google began making a BlackBerry clone, took one look at iPhone, switched gears, and now we have Android 2.3 Gingerbread (and Chrome OS, perhaps after seeing webOS).
In each of those cases a company whose core technology was at its end of life brought in or rebuilt a new foundation to take them forward another step with their core products. Apple didn't buy NeXT and launch a gaming console. Microsoft didn't bring in NT and launch a walkman competitor. Palm didn't build webOS to get into the printer game (listening HP?), and Google -- well, Android was additive for them; their advertising business is doing just fine thanks. RIM has done the first part, they've bought QNX but instead of using that to build a 14 million a quarter selling iPhone competitor, to make a better BlackBerry... they're deploying it on a tablet to take on the 5 million or so a quarter selling iPad. Instead of using it to regroup, retrench, and relaunch, they're using it to branch out and buy time. And they're making incredible compromises to do it.
First, RIM is playing the HTML5 card for developers, the one Palm played with webOS 2 years ago. Now HTML5 is great for webapps and maybe webapps are the future but we're nowhere near that future yet. RIM's co-CEO Jim Balsillie suggested Apple's App Store-class apps are only necessary on iOS because iOS can't handle the web as well as the PlayBook (a product which does not yet exist for consumers). He said "you don't need an app for the web".
Except of course you do. The browser is an app, a generic frame app that's good for most things but not great for all things. My Mac and Windows PCs can all handle the web well -- better than any PlayBook real or imagined -- and I like many others still use native apps all the time. (MailPlane does things with Gmail that Gmail.com stuck in a browser just can't do.) Google, the king of webapps, makes all sorts of native apps because they -- being the king -- they understand the internet pipes better feed native apps at this point than the browser. (Witness the exception that proves the rule -- Chrome OS.)
It's become a cliche but when Steve Jobs announced "sweet" webapps as the original iPhone 2G SDK back in 2007 he was met -- rightfully so -- with the jeers and condemnation of the developer community. Now it's 2010 and mobile apps have proven so successful that web browsing is actually down on iOS. People like using apps better than the web on mobile because internet-enabled apps currently work better than the web browser on mobile devices.
Second, RIM is using Adobe's AIR as stop-gap SDK and Flash as a presentation layer. While that's great news for Flash developers because it allows for the mythical "code once, run anywhere" travesty that's tortured users for over a decade, it's the same trap RIM was was in with Java2ME on BlackBerry OS. It's an intermediary, code-intepreting layer based on outdated, historically poorly performing technology that RIM can't control. If AIR and Flash languish and fall far behind the curve, as Adobe has let them do in the past, or if Adobe takes AIR and Flash in a direction that's at conflict with RIM and their users, what can RIM do? They're once again not masters of their own destiny, something Apple, Microsoft, Palm, and Google decidedly are.
Third, QNX and the AIR layers don't seem to be able to run on phones, which are RIM's core business. It demands too much processing power and consumes too much battery life to actually power the products RIM sells. In 2010. iOS has been powering iPhones well since 2007. Android, UI challenged as it was, worked fine on the 2008 G1. webOS did wonders with the Pre in 2009. Microsoft, who had their head in the sand (to put it politely) for years still managed to launch a new OS that ran on phones by 2010. That it took one or two years post-iPhone is understandable. That it took three is perplexing. That RIM will take four, maybe five is as flabbergasting as the PlayBook itself.
Fourth, given RIM doesn't have a native development environment of their own or a next-generation OS that can run on current generation phones, the tablet-style PlayBook might seem like a smart, place-holder play to keep the BlackBerry faithful, well, faithful.
Except the PlayBook is a BlackBerry in name only. As I mentioned at the beginning, BlackBerry, OS-challenged as it is, still leads the industry in enterprise push, messaging, and overall communications. Those are their core strengths and competencies. Say what you want about the BlackBerry OS user experience -- and I've said plenty, as have lots of BlackBerry lovers -- tens of millions of people use it everyday. And the PlayBook is nothing like it. The PlayBook, which RIM can only hope to sell to Enterprise and BlackBerry addicts, has a user experience completely alien to BlackBerry. It's interactivity is all Apple iPad and its UI metaphors are all taken from Palm's webOS.
Apple was criticized for not doing something more original with the iPad, of simply scaling up the iPhone. But that's exactly right and Apple said why at the introduction -- there were already tens of millions of users who knew how to use iPhone and would instantly know and feel comfortable using iPad.
How many BlackBerry users will instantly know PlayBook based on their BlackBerry use? BlackBerry users are BlackBerry users -- if they're still BlackBerry users -- because they don't want iPhones or Pres. They want BlackBerrys. If they wanted iOS they'd have already gotten iPads and if they want webOS they'll wait for a PalmPad.
PlayBooks sound like they're for play. BlackBerrys are known, trusted, and loved for work. Even the name shows the utter disconnect at the core of this device, and at the core of RIM.
Like Ballmer at Microsoft and Colligan at Palm, Lazaridis and Balsillie at RIM probably thought they were so entrenched, so far advanced, that no upstart like Apple (or Google) could challenge them. By the time they did start responding with their "Apple killer", the BlackBerry Storm in 2008, the negative reaction should have shown them that what they were doing wasn't and wouldn't work, that they needed to think different and leap ahead.
I've always thought Android and Windows Mobile suffered because the CEOs of Google and Microsoft didn't care about them. They're just another screen that needs to be owned. Steve Jobs loves the iPhone. Jon Rubenstein went to Palm to make the Pre. Lazaridis and Balsillie obviously love the BlackBerry (maybe even more than Kevin). But the love that can launch and platform can also blind a company to the platform's decline. Founders have a tough time recognizing when change is needed. Witness the BlackBerry Torch.
It's taken RIM over three years to recognize the trouble they're in and since they wasted so much time they've now become desperate not to waste any more. That's why Balsillie is firing away at Apple and that's why Lazardis came off so poorly when interviewed by Mossberg and Swisher at the Dive into Mobile conference. Unable to show off anything but the PlayBook prototype, unable to concede the failure of the Torch and risk the Osborn effect on existing BlackBerry OS devices, and unable to tell a story about smartphones that can't be told until next year at the earliest, he'd have been better off not doing the interview at all.
RIM doesn't have Windows and Office, or online advertising to keep them afloat while they (re)invent their smartphones. They're like Apple when Jobs came back or Palm when Rubenstein came in, only it's not then it's now and the space is accelerating faster and the climate is more competitive than ever before.
That's why RIM has to make so many compromises, playing the HTML5 card, getting in bed with Adobe, going with a tablet instead of a phone, and creating an alien experience, and why they've had to run away from the Blackberry to battle Apple -- because today's BlackBerry has proven can't battle Apple and tomorrow's BlackBerry is still way more than a day way.
They waited too long and now they've bet on the PlayBook to to keep them going until chips and batteries let them re-enter the smartphone game. It's a huge gamble and not one that's guaranteed to pay off .