Blackberry must stay relevant to stay available

Blair Hanley Frank

Research In Motion (RIM) is on the ropes. The company best known for producing the Blackberry rocked the tech world last week when it announced that its two CEOs were resigning. To those of us who follow tech news, this isn’t exactly surprising. The Playbook tablet, designed to be a competitor to Apple’s iPad, flopped hard. In discussions of smartphone competition, Blackberries are hardly brought up, except perhaps as a reference to something that used to be cool.

RIM managed to stay profitable by continuing to churn out Blackberries, because in a market that was most interested in the smartphone as a business tool, the Blackberry was incredibly useful. However, with the introduction of the iPhone, that market began to shift dramatically. Smartphones are no longer just for the residents of the corner office anymore––they’re consumer products that are becoming increasingly popular for use at home and with people of college age and younger. And let’s face it: Blackberries aren’t hip. RIM must figure out how to revitalize its product line, or die.

On the face of things, that’s only big news for IT folks in enterprise environments, like companies or schools that rely on Blackberries as their organization’s smartphone of choice. But RIM is providing important competition in a market that’s currently dominated by Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7. Back in the days before iPhones, the major competition among smartphone manufacturers was in developing a better phone for enterprise use. That’s how we ended up with iterations on the Treo from Palm and a truly ugly Windows Phone OS. Apple entering the market signaled a major shift in the way things were done, and that competition has led to a lot of positive innovation in the smartphone space. That’s why I want RIM to remain relevant: Solid competition will drive innovation.

But in order to do that, RIM must realize that the Blackberry formula that carried them this far has to go out the window. People who have cut their teeth on iOS, Android and WP7 (in other words, young folks like us) are going to be entering the enterprise in droves in the coming years. A new study has noted that iOS has been gaining a lot of traction among executives, and the new blood entering the workforce will only accentuate that. While IT directors may like the really well-developed tools that RIM has provided for working with Blackberries, they’re ultimately going to be beholden to their end users.

Right now, one of the biggest hurdles Blackberry is facing is design. With the other major smartphone platforms, I can easily conjure a clear mental image that represents the way that its hardware and software looks, whether it’s Apple’s iconic iPhone design, Motorola’s Droid or the clean boxes of Windows Phone 7’s interface. Blackberry can’t provide that right now, but a design home run (coupled with marketing) will do wonders. One of the greatest strengths of the Blackberry platform right now is the Blackberry Messaging service. For those folks who aren’t familiar with BBM, it’s basically a more feature-rich form of text messaging that runs on a Blackberry’s data connection. (Apple is working on something similar with iMessage, but it’s not nearly as full-featured as of iOS 5.) If RIM can couple BBM with a compelling hardware and software platform, there’s some real potential for success.

As it stands right now, I’m tenuously hopeful. In an interview posted on Youtube, RIM’s new CEO seems to have some understanding that they need to make a change. I just hope that change isn’t focused around a strategy of doing the same thing and expecting new results.