The parable of RIM

Here are the highlights from RIM’s latest quarter:

  • 14.1 million BlackBerry smartphones shipped, 13 million sold through
  • 150k PlayBook shipped with sell-through slightly higher. 800k PlayBooks shipped so far.
  • BlackBerry subscriber base up to 75 million
  • High growth cited for U.K., France, South Africa, Mexico and Argentina, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. RIM is the #1 smartphone vendor in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Sales outside the US, UK and Canada were 61% of revenues. US is now 20% of sales, UK 11%.
  • Hardware growth outside the US was 56%
  • There are 630 carriers
  • 50k apps in App World with 5 million downloads per day
  • Forecasting 11 to 12 million smartphones next quarter

Given the channel fill with a new product, the device business was marginal at best. The company obtained -1% growth y/y in units but 31% sequential growth from a transitional quarter. The average selling price (inclusive of service revenues) is $354 and about $280 excluding service revenues. I estimate that operating margins have dropped to about 11%. Not a good story, but one we have been warned to expect.

But a crucial new twist to the story is that RIM announced that they don’t expect new BlackBerry 10 devices until late next year. That came as a surprise and the stock sold off significantly, valuing the company at well below book value.

Stepping back, the biggest surprise is that the company seems to have had no plan for sustaining itself.

Let me explain.

If you go back to 2005 or so the world of smartphones was a mix of modular OSs and integrated platforms, much as it is today.  Not unlike Android today, Windows Mobile was successful in licensing to dozens of vendors who in turn released hundreds of products. Symbian also was licensed but most volumes came from Nokia and they held the lion’s share. Then there was the BlackBerry integrated solution which worked smoothly and had devoted fans who upgraded every chance they had and operators who were joyous at the new ARPU. There was also PalmOS as offered by PalmSource trying to be a “third horse” and unseat stodgy old Microsoft.

It was into that fray that both Apple and Google jumped. Google acquired Android in 2005 and Apple was busy polishing a version of OS X that would became iOS. In three and two years respectively these platforms would be in the market.

Regardless of the actions of rivals, all competitors must have faced the same questions in 2005: As technology was changing rapidly and as they all had access to component roadmaps, what is the best technology approach to this market? Should they embrace certain innovations to sustain their business trajectory? RIM had a tightly integrated software, hardware and service offering. What could make it better? Nokia was also basing its products on a more loosely integrated offering (nominally it was modular, but only just). It saw the writing on the wall and began developing a Linux variant (Maemo) as a potential candidate to replace Symbian. Microsoft was basing its solution of a modular approach. Windows CE was ok as a kernel but they had layers on top which were optimized around stylus-based user experiences (analogous to mouse actions). Could it take on a rich computing experience?

There were many experience candidates. Stylus, keypad, keyboard all had adherents. There was a lot of hesitation. After the iPhone launched with capacitive (finger) touch, resetting user expectations, it still took a year for many of the vendors to re-consider their technology plans. The weakest changed first.

Microsoft felt the pain quickest. They also had the least to lose since revenues from Windows Mobile were paltry. By 2008 internally they turned 90 degrees. They embarked on re-building their user experience and orphaning the Windows Mobile ecosystem and many of the vendor relationships they had built. Palm dropped PalmOS and built WebOS internally quite quickly. They licensed Windows Mobile as a stop-gap. Around the same time Nokia doubled down on Maemo and joined with Intel to form MeeGo. They did not orphan Symbian though and kept trying to adapt it to the new experiences and input methods.

But RIM did nothing. Almost nothing. They were the healthiest competitor. They felt no pain from iPhone’s entry. The platform they had built was still growing and they were tweaking it constantly. There were always improvements to point to but fundamentally the code was limited. It was very difficult to adapt it to touch input and the first attempts at a touch UI were embarrassing. But there were no signs of a new platform that reflected the Unix-like competition.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, Unix-like operating systems were having their revenge. To a computer scientist the future of mobile computing would mirror that of personal computing in terms of architecture. The foundations of the early smartphones were built on constraints that were disappearing while being unable to accommodate new input methods. In other words, the early efforts were optimized around those constraints and sub-optimal for rich user experiences. They had to be. There were limited processors, memories and screens and battery life.

It turned out that all the early mobile operating systems were unsuitable for the advances in technology that came after 2007. Companies which were able to adapt or embrace Unix-like operating systems in a mobile context gained the ability to grow with the new input methods. The sooner they “pulled the trigger” on the shift, the better off they were. This is in fact what enabled entrants to gain footholds. Entrants entered with Unix-like OSs straight away while incumbents had to justify changing and the more successful they were the harder it was to justify changing.

RIM had trouble justifying this change. It waited until 2010 to finally acquire the QNX asset that would offer them a stronger software foundation.  It still had to adapt this acquisition and it looks like it won’t be done until at least 2012, seven years after they should have started. And this should be seen as a sustaining technological change. A new OS is not a disruptive technology to what is already a mobile computer.

However, delays like these can be fatal. We see the impact on Microsoft who was earliest to push the reset button in 2008. It still took two years to rebuild Windows Mobile into Windows Phone and is now still struggling to regain lost share (less than 2% today). We see the impact on Nokia which was unable to affect a transition to MeeGo due to a litany of issues and had to throw in the towel on self-determination. We see the impact on Palm which lost its independence as WebOS was a bit too little too late.

These companies had the right technical strategies but suffered from execution and business architecture issues. RIM is years late in embracing what appears to be a sustaining improvement.

But whenever you see what appears to be a coordinated effort by companies to fail simultaneously you have to ask if the change they struggle with is really sustaining or disruptive. The pattern makes me suspicious that what RIM, Microsoft, Palm and Nokia faced was more than a failure to embrace a sustaining improvement. I suspect that the failure is evidence of tectonic shifting of business models.