Skip to main content

BlackBerry's New Captain Won't Change Playbook to Save Sinking Ship

If you think RIM's decision to replace co-founders and co-CEOS Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsille with COO Thorsten Heins will save BlackBerry , think again. Though investors are happy to see the short-sited, mercurial Lazaridis step aside, Heins is a company insider who would rather steer into the skid than change course. Unfortunately, it's BlackBerry users and investors who will end up wearing the skid marks.

For some reason, RIM's board seems to believe that simply changing the face at the top of the company will change its fortunes. In the company's press release, Lazaridis even cited a need to turn the public focus away from him and onto "the great company we have built, its iconic products, global brand and its talented employees." But the problems with BlackBerry aren't cosmetic, they're systemic. Someone needs to look at Nokia's example and chart a whole new course before this boat sinks for good. 

Having lost three quarters of its stock value in the past year while watching its U.S. market share dwindle to just 16-percent, RIM is in much worse shape than Nokia was in 2010. The Finnish handset-maker's response was to bring in a total outsider, former Microsoft exec Stephen Elop, to serve as CEO. After just a few months on the job, Elop sent a memo to all of his employees telling them that the company's reliance on its outdated Symbian operating system and the huge bet it had placed on MeeGo as its next OS would not be enough to solve Nokia's very serious problems.  

In his impassioned note, Elop told the story of a man who worked on an oil platform in the North Sea and woke up one night to see that his platform was on fire and he would have to jump into uncertain waters to survive. "Nokia, our platform is burning," Elop wrote, as he announced his decision to switch his company's OS strategy from MeeGo to Windows Phone.

The results of Nokia's transition look positive so far. While the company's old-school Symbian phones continue to slide, its new Lumia line of Windows Phone 7 devices has sold over 1 million units since launching  in November. In fact, one study shows Nokia already holding 45 percent of the Windows Phone market, more than any other manufacturer. At LAPTOP, we  named the company's snazzy Lumia 900 as the best  smartphone of CES 2012.

Heins could take an example from Elop, curve the RIM ship in a new direction, and make some bold moves. Here are just a few different things he could try:

  • Switch BlackBerry to Android: Just as the MeeGo OS was long-touted as a savior for Nokia, BlackBerry 10 is Waterloo's mobile messiah. I have no doubt that, if it ever comes to market, the QNX-based operating system will have a great-looking UI like the one we've seen on the PlayBook. However, by the time BlackBerry 10 launches on phones next fall, it will be even further behind Android, iOS, and Windows Phone than if it launched today.  

Don't get me wrong: I'd love to play with some BlackBerry 10 phones, just as I'd love to see some more MeeGo phones beyond the Nokia N9, a single model that Nokia introduced just to show the world what life would have been like if it hadn't changed strategies. However, time is running out and the market may not have room for another new OS. By latching onto Android, BlackBerry could leverage Google's existing ecosystem of apps and developers but add on its own unique services like BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Enterprise Server.  

For better or worse, it looks like we'll be getting our BlackBerry 10 phones, as Heins affirmed his commitment to BlackBerry 10 both in the company's press release and in its conference call, saying that RIM's key strength is its ability to own both the hardware and software ecosystems behind its devices, similar to Apple. 

"We are very excited about PlayBook 2.0 and BlackBerry 10. The reception of our products at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was encouraging," Heins said in a press release. 

  • License the company's technology: Despite its many problems, businesses still place a lot of value on BlackBerry's back-end services for managing and security corporate email. BlackBerry licenses these services to other handset makers or software makers, so businesses with a mix of Android and iOS users can still take advantage of BlackBerry's cloud services. Apparently, Heins is open to this strategy, which makes a lot of sense.
  • Refocus on business: RIM desperately needs to go back to its roots as an enterprise-friendly, business-oriented communications service provider. Over the past year, we've seen the company focus its marketing message on consumers instead, going so far as to tout the BlackBerry Playbook as a gaming platform while ignoring native email and messaging on its slate. As I've said before, RIM needs to focus ALL of its energy on improving business communications. The door is wide open for RIM to create a secure, stable video conferencing solution and to outdo Google Docs and Microsoft Office in terms of mobile online communication.

Unfortunately, Heins is still in love with the consumer market. He told conference call listeners, "We need to be more consumer-orientated, because this is where a lot of our growth is coming from." He's right that more and more companies let their employees bring their own devices to work, but he needs to appeal to businesses and business-oriented consumers by focusing on productivity and communications, not gaming or music. 

  • Speed up the timetable for BlackBerry 10, but get it right:If RIM plans to stick with BlackBerry 10 as its future OS, it needs to hurry up and ship some hardware. By all accounts, the BlackBerry London will arrive no earlier than September, by which time we'll probably have an iPhone 5 and quad-core smartphones running on Android 5.0. The first BlackBerry 10 handset needs to come out sooner, and it has to have hardware parity with its leading competitors. That means an HD screen, 4G LTE, and at least a dual-core CPU inside. In 2012, there's no room for the kind of low-res, underpowered 3G devices RIM has been hurling at the market. 

I won't hold my breath because it sounds like Heins has no problem with the company's go-slow philosophy. He even praised his predecessors' limitless patience, saying:  "It is Mike and Jim's continued unwillingness to sacrifice long-term value for short-term gain which has made RIM the great company that it is today. I share that philosophy." If only customers and investors could be so patient!

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely Heins will do much, if anything, to rock the boat. Instead, he's determined to stay the course -- all the way into a giant iceberg of irrelevancy. Let's just hope the Good Ship BlackBerry can withstand the impact.