Friday, June 27, 2008

RIM ignores BlackBerry fans at its peril

I’ve been thinking over the last few days about the future of mobile devices, sparked in part by listening to a talk by Klein Gilhousen, one of the founders of Qualcomm (LINK) and the inventor of CDMA cellular technology.

The mobile phone world will soon split along similar lines to the personal computer, dividing those companies able to make a distinction for themselves largely through innovative software and those who make the receptacles for other people's creativity (like Dell in the PC world). The interesting question to me is where RIM, maker of BlackBerry devices, will be positioned. Devices will be iPhones or based on Symbian, Android or Windows Mobile. Will RIM be able to position itself as a second Apple, with a proprietary operating system running on its own hardware? Or will it be overrun by Apple, open source or Microsoft?

I think RIM has a chance. But only if they understand how to engage more closely with their users. Recent indications are not encouraging.

The RIM of today is based on the marriage of a telephony device and a texting device, producing a hybrid of mobile phone and a pager. It was more than a phone but less than a computer. Although RIM has added features and functionality, its devices have remained a combination of telephony and text. Apple changed the game last year by creating a device with genesis in a computer platform, which includes telephony and texting components but only as a subset of a larger offering. And Google and Nokia are trying to change the game further by producing whole new open source software development platforms for mobile computing. What should RIM do about these changes? How should they respond and position themselves?

A device like a BlackBerry, and most especially the iPhone, is now powerful enough to literally become part of us, our electronic extension for storing parts of ourselves and engaging with the world via the device, with our voice and with other data (images, location, text, sound).

RIM was the first company that offered a device that became such a literal part of us. The "crackberry" name applied to obsessive BlackBerry users is an indication of the extent to which users found themselves unable to detach themselves from their devices. The level of intimacy produced between user and device is even greater with the iPhone. With its touchscreen, you literally have to stroke it. But it's also able to become such an intimate extension of ourselves because of the power that a device based on a computing platform gives the user and the intuitive and beautiful interface Apple created.

RIM would have like to maintain their stronghold in the corporate world and relegate the iPhone to a role as a personal, home device. But that Microsoft strategy will be less effective with mobile platforms because of the personal nature of the device. Two devices, one for work and one for home, is much less acceptable when the device is literally an extension of the person. As a consequence, the corporate world has had to begin to adapt to the iPhone and Apple has accommodated. With iPhone 3G and the significant backend offerings targeted to appease corporate IT departments, such as the ability to manage iPhones remotely, Apple will have in the iPhone a crossover device between the personal and the corporate.

For RIM, as for other mobile phone companies, the success of the iPhone has been a stress and challenge. RIM is used to having the lines between the personal and corporate are fairly clean. Now along comes Apple with a single product that live in both worlds but is driven by individual's desires for the device rather than corporate mandate. RIM’s new BlackBerry Bold is an attempt to also create such a crossover device. It will be their top end mobile when it comes out, and therefore is intended to appeal to corporate customers. But it also includes more personal features than previous corporate oriented BlackBerrys, such as a camera and iTunes and video support. RIM may have a device that can approach the appeal of the iPhone. Can it create a marketing strategy to match and effectively engage its customers desire to purchase a new electronic, personal extension?

Apple’s customers are well known for their unusual passion for the company’s products. And Apple knows how to stoke that passion, communicating directly and personally with its users. It's ability to market products is legendary. Despite that BlackBerry users are also highly passionate about their devices, RIM in contrast to Apple seems to hide from its customers. Bloggers have desperately tried to figure out when the new BlackBerry Bold is coming out. Silence from RIM for weeks and then denials. Contrast that to Apple which tells customers when products will launch and then delivers. RIM created a place for the BlackBerry Bold on their website prior to its release (now slated to be August in the United States). But it took the company over a month to make ANY response to those who went to the trouble of entering their e-mail address on the site. And the update that was finally sent was a graphically weak HTML e-mail that merely linked back to the same minimal information that's been online for over a month at RIM, al beit with the slim addition of a poorly produced video that is clearly a mock-up of the user experience rather than the real thing!

Going forward RIM is going to have to understand that the obsession that people still have for its devices is going to be converted over to the iPhone if they don't fix their ability to communicate with their customers (tell us when the damn things are going to be released, for god sakes!) and articulate a vision of the company that recognizes the personal relationship its user base has with its products. On RIM’s website, the Bold has been announced but with a frustratingly small amount of information and images. Meanwhile, pictures of demo copies of the product are scattered throughout the Internet outside of RIM’s control. RIM can’t relax and assume that its extensive corporate infrastructure will protect it forever. RIM has to engage directly with its customers as individuals. It ignores the personal relationship its users have with their BlackBerrys at its peril.

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