A new account of “the fall of BlackBerry” in Canada’s Globe and Mail sheds light on the torment of the country’s once-mighty technology champion with some new revelations of internal rifts and missed opportunities. Four stand out for me.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that tech entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Andrew Mason, ousted chief executive of online deals site Groupon, may have taken the comparison to heart.
On Monday, Mr Mason, who was sacked from the company he co-founded in February, released Hardly Workin’. The album, he writes on his blog, is “of music to help people get ahead in the workplace” and “pulls some of the most important learnings from my years at the helm of one of the fastest growing businesses in history, and packages them as music”.
While Mr Mason’s effort may be post-Groupon, there is a long (and dubious) history of employees taking to song to express their love for stakeholders, customers and the company they work for.
What happens when the cluster you helped create falls out of love with you? It is a question BlackBerry may be asking itself just a week after relaunching with a new name and a new phone.
According to a New York Times report, after years of being the beating commercial heart of Waterloo, Ontario, the company formerly known as Research in Motion is no longer the destination of choice for top talent. “BlackBerry is now a last resort,” it said.
And if that wasn’t tough enough for a former emblem of Canadian ingenuity, its position has been usurped either by US companies, “including Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft” or graduates launching their own businesses.
BlackBerry phones by RIM. Getty Images
We are about to find out whether Research in Motion can re-establish itself as a serious competitor in the smartphone world, or will go the way of Palm and others, crushed by Apple and Google.
Judging by alleged leaked photographs of the new BlackBerry London phone that will run BlackBerry 10 software, it seems as if RIM has gone through the full five stages of the Kübler-Ross grief model in response to the iPhone, arriving at “acceptance” and abandoning its illusions.
Having initially protested that few people would want a smartphone without a physical keyboard, and continuing to display a lot of anger and resentment, RIM has changed its management and adjusted to the world as it is.
Fred Wilson, the venture capitalist who is a mainstay of New York internet start-ups, has some provocative thoughts on the lifecycle of web and mobile apps – that their lifecycles are similar to those of hit television shows:
“This round trip from nothing to everything to nothing again is also true at some level with many tech companies. Digtal Equipment Corporation was founded in 1957 and shuttered in 1998. RIM was founded in 1984 and in all liklihood will be gone before the end of this decade. Same with Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, and many more iconic tech companies.”
As he says, the networks effects that work in favour of social networks on the way up can also turn against them:
“Network effects are powerful in both directions. They can help you grow exponentially. But when they are going against you, they work just as fast. Myspace’s decline was mind-blowingly quick. RIM’s has been as well. Who is next?”
Sarah Gordon points out that Nokia and Sony have a set of problems that undermined their capacity for innovation. But they are far from alone in being victims of Apple’s success.
In fact, the list of Apple victims is long and stretches across the media and technology. Since Steve Jobs unveiled iTunes and the iPod in 2001, starting Apple’s decade long rise to dominance in consumer technology and electronics, his company has left many of its competitors wounded.
The initial noises out of the shake-up at Research in Motion, although it was more far-reaching than had been expected, are not especially encouraging for the investors and analysts who want radical action.
Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the joint chairmen and chief executives of the maker of BlackBerries, have relinquished both roles. But they have handed over to an insider who looks determined to stick to the same course.
Thorsten Heins, the new chief executive, told the FT:
“I want to maintain the focus on enterprise, but we need to communicate a bit more with our consumers. We need to do more marketing.”
Research in Motion’s offer to compensate its users affected by the BlackBerry network failure of the past week with $100 of free applications is a neat idea in that it costs the company far less than the apparent gain to its customers.
Given the zero cost of distribution and the fact that RIM only has to pay the wholesale cost to publishers of games such as Sims 3 – as well as gaining the benefit of hooking BlackBerry users into its ecosystem, it is a modest price to pay.
For people unable to communicate easily via BlackBerry, BlackBerry users are making a lot of noise. Faced with a third day of disruption to BlackBerry services around the world, they’re venting their outage outrage on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Many are reaching the same conclusion: this is a communications crisis for Research in Motion.
Well, no. As one of BP’s advisers commented last year when the oil company was being lambasted for its response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion: “It’s not a PR crisis; it’s a crisis.”
One problem with examining the road not taken is that it’s usually impossible to tell whether you took the right route until it’s too late to change course.
The announcement of the Google-Motorola Mobility deal sent me back to notes from an interview with Nokia’s chief executive Stephen Elop in March, to remind myself how difficult it is to make strategic leaps in a fast-changing industry. You’ll recall that the Finnish group ended up selecting Microsoft as its smartphone partner rather than Google.