Dusan commented on Business Insider’s piece on Research In Motion being dead in the water, and as the resident BlackBerry Dude, I’ve got some territory to defend.
After the dust has settled from the launch of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and the results of a lukewarm reception have become evident, analysts and investors have begun flipping out over RIMM stock and calling for The End of Days, as they are wont to do. What bothers me most about these pieces is that they’re less about what is specifically wrong with BlackBerry and more about how it can be more like iPhone or Android, which RIM has no interest in being (nor should they if they want BlackBerry to remain a differentiated, unique product). Maybe the “RIM is Dead” angle is borne of hype, fanboyism, or a need to stir up nonexistent controversy for the sake of page hits, but whatever the case may be, it’s a game that crops up often enough when Apple or Google have a big announcement about their respective platforms.
Lately, the trendy thing to post about is how Research In Motion is becoming like Palm: a slowly dying, antiquated company that’s ripe for acquisition. The problem with equating RIM to Palm in that sense is that RIM is still growing, and they continue to lead the North American smartphone market. No doubt the likes of Android are accelerating more quickly, but to think that Google’s mobile platform is immune to diminishing returns or any kind of plateau over time is on the outer edge of optimism, even with an army of manufacturers as back up. Besides that, the smartphone market is still the relative minority compared to the mobile market as a whole; most consumers still use feature phones, leaving ample and equal opportunity for any manufacturer who has a solid foothold in the smartphone game, including RIM.
Dusan does bring up the good point that RIM’s patent prospects aren’t great. RIM had a shot at a healthy batch from Nortel, and rumour has it they made a bid for Palm prior to HP’s acquisition. It’s definitely in RIM’s best interest and suits their all-in-house attitude to have major wireless patents under their wing, but things like that aren’t cheap, and aren’t often available. Isn’t it surprising though that despite the significant disparity in intellectual property between RIM and Palm, RIM has weathered the test of time better than Palm? More patents would be a nice feather in RIM’s cap, but if the lack of in-house GSM or CDMA patents was going to kill BlackBerry, wouldn’t it have done that by now, after RIM has spent some 25-odd years in the wireless business?
Another valid argument is RIM’s inability to produce high-end devices. The fact that efficiency lies so close to the core of BlackBerry’s DNA means that hot-burning CPUs and displays are ruled out from production. This leaves other manufacturers who are willing to sacrifice a bit of battery life, or tack on a bit to retail costs for the sake of speed, to offer the top-tier smartphones. As a consumer, this situation makes me sad, but if I were an investor (I’m not, FYI), I would be very confident about RIM’s strategy here. The upper-end devices, though high-margin and high-profile, are a small part of the smartphone market; the real money is in the fat middle, which is what RIM is clearly aiming for. Lower-end parts are also easier to make, which is why you don’t see BlackBerry shortages because RIM can’t come up with displays or internal storage fast enough. A steady supply means the money train keeps on rolling.
The efficiency argument extends to the BlackBerry operating system. Everyone was looking to BlackBerry 6 as if it was going to change everything, but the fact is the BlackBerry OS was built from the ground up for a messaging terminal, not an application platform, and as such messaging will remain the primary strength of BlackBerry. Don’t hold your breath for a webOS or Windows Phone 7-style overhaul; RIM is happy where they are doing what they do, and they’ve got little reason to radically change their strategy. They for sure have a lot of work to do to woo app developers and RIM knows it, but it’s not like BlackBerry’s going to go out of business because customers can’t download a particular fart app. As is, App World has most of the big names in mobile software covered, if not being quite accessible enough to the garage developers who sometimes pump out something interesting. For now, that’s good enough.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of ways that BlackBerry can improve (nobody’s perfect after all), but it seems to me that folks who think BlackBerry needs to be more like Android or iPhone haven’t spent enough time with the phone, or don’t realize that RIM works to a different set of standards than many players do. Using the HTC Desire this week, I’ve definitely experienced a stark difference with the Torch 9800, but there are very good reasons for those differences.