There's only one thing Research in Motion has to do to stay in business: change the world. Again.
It's been tough being a Canadian in the tech industry these last few years. RIM morphed (or dwarfed) from poster child to whipping boy. It's unfortunate that RIM spent the past seven years remaking the best phone that 2005 had to offer.
Pot-shots aside, RIM created the smartphone and changed the world. Key to this move was making the first smartphone carrier-friendly enough to justify the cost of building a wireless data network. They focused on low-bandwidth features like encryption, compression, email, and Blackberry Messenger (BBM). RIM was an innovator with little competition and lots of support from carriers.
But light competition and support from big bureaucratic telcos is a recipe for complacency and, ultimately, trouble.
Then trouble arrived. Apple came along with its smartphone and got two things right: touchscreens and mobile purchases. By partnering with a weakened and hungry telco, Apple dictated the terms and attracted developers to extend the functionality of the iPhone. Apple quickly showed us how robust a mobile device could be and Blackberry became blasé. While Apple really only had two revolutionary moves, it put the company one up on RIM.
It's a shame that RIM reacted the way that many large companies do: by doing nothing new. Today's Blackberrys are supercharged relics from an earlier era. To remain relevant (and in business), RIM's going to have to do something as significant as inventing the smartphone, the touch interface, or the app store. The harsh reality is that their current strategy is broken, no matter how many times they insist that it isn't.
The good news is that they're the right people to do it. Rather than make palliative arguments about RIM still being profitable, having strong overseas sales and a strong IP portfolio, here are some things the company should think about to get back in the game:
1. RIM's employees are some of the smartest people in the world, listen to them. Last year an open letter was written to the co-CEOs that started, "I have lost confidence." The response from on high did little to inspire or restore confidence. Not only has RIM got some of the smartest minds Canada has to offer, it also has access to the next generation of smartest minds, currently enrolled just down the street at The University of Waterloo. These people are an asset, and somewhere among them is the big idea that can make RIM great again.
2. Play to your strengths, but don't let them overpower you. For a company whose core feature is secure information delivery, it makes absolutely no sense that the PlayBook was let out the door without email or BBM. Be the best at security, but recognize that security is a feature, not an entire product. For example, legions of executives are going to need to check their analytics dashboards on the go, give them the best products to do so. When the President of the United States and his top advisors trust your security you've still got cards to play.
3. Don't rule anything out. With RIM's smarts, engineering skills, brand, and manufacturing capacity, the next big thing could be something completely unexpected. Apple was an also-ran in the personal computer industry until they launched the iPod and iTunes and then followed up with iPhones and iPads. Microsoft launched Kinect as an extension to their Xbox business and then opened it up so others could innovate on top of it. Create a new industry, do something cool.
RIM was once the pride of Canada; so was Nortel. It can be again. Nortel couldn't. Let's hope that this change in leadership isn't just a new face on the same march towards a Nortel fate.