Fast forward to late last week when I attended a meeting in New York with Tim Stevens and RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis to get the latest dish on the PlayBook. As Lazaridis demoed myriad features from HDMI presentation mode to the built-in music player on the company's hotly debated tablet, it hit me: the one question I've been pondering since getting a real look at the device. Who is it for? At that moment, I realized the problem that's been plaguing RIM as of late -- and not just in its tablet strategy, but its phone strategy as a whole: it doesn't know who its products are for and subsequently can't deliver. Am I crazy? Read on after the break and hear me out.
From where I stand, RIM's demographic is broken into two distinct consumer groups. On one end of the spectrum are the all-important business users. These are the folks who have aged with the company itself, shelling out for its BES services -- and who RIM expects to stay faithful through thick and thin. But, there's a whole other demographic the company seems to be ignoring at the other end: the younger crowd for whom the BlackBerry's messaging prowess has significantly altered the messaging -- and subsequently the social -- landscape. I have many friends who have proclaimed that they prefer the apps and features of other mobile platforms, but simply won't switch because they "can't live without BBM." The company's BBM-centric ad campaigns of late reveal that it isn't completely aloof to this, but RIM simply can't compete with the "cool" factor of other platforms like webOS, iOS, or Android... and it won't be able to evade this reality forever.
The PlayBook was RIM's last real chance to prove that it has a clue -- that it could still make something decidedly cool. I was skeptical of early previews and teasers, but was completely blown away when I got my hands on a demo unit at CES. Yet, three months later in that room with Mike and Tim, I couldn't help but wonder how that time was spent. As I heard about marginally useful features such as HDMI output and a complicated wireless file-sharing implementation, my worries that the company was headed down the wrong path were confirmed. Yes, the PlayBook has a special "Presentation Mode" useful for businessmen frequently giving PowerPoint presentations, but will the enterprise really allow extra software to be installed just for simple file transfers? Each PlayBook will ship with a couple of games from EA to appeal to consumers, but other options in App World seem to be lacking, especially compared to competitors. My point is this: half-pleasing everyone is not the same as fully pleasing some. In fact, it's probably worse.
Why does the company refuse to cater to people like me? The folks who simply must have the BlackBerry's messaging prowess, but also want the option to do more than just that. QNX is supposed to be the answer to all of these questions, but the platform is barely ripe enough for a tablet, and who knows what that means for phones. RIM has been completely silent on the matter save for Lazaridis' outbreak at D, and every leaked device simply points to more of the same. To make things even more confusing, the PlayBook's Android pseudo-support has us asking why the company didn't just take the Google-paved road from the start. There are a lot of people out there -- a couple of past and present Engadget editors included -- who would love a souped-up BlackBerry Torch running Android 2.3 with a BBM icon emblazoned on its high-resolution homescreen. Heck, if the PlayBook ran Honeycomb, you probably wouldn't be reading this here editorial. Let's face it: hardware has always been a strongsuit for the 'Berry maker, but aside from its messaging products, the company has stagnated on its core OS. (Perhaps this is why it's seen fit to acquire companies like Dataviz, QNX, and TAT.)
More and more companies are offering employees their choice of devices, and despite RIM's better-than-estimated latest financials, it'll eventually need to see the writing on the wall. The audience it has had since the beginning is in the very early stages of an exodus, and the one it happened to stumble upon will not stick around forever if it can't deliver products that can do more stuff. The company thought it would attract more development (and thus more apps) by offering so many different development options for QNX, but early indicators tell us that it's serving more to confuse devs and users alike. Not to mention the fact that Gartner doesn't have such high expectations for QNX's tablet market share, nor RIM's long-term smartphone position -- and IDC indicates much of the same.
The saddest part of the whole situation is that RIM seems to take it personally. Lazaridis' press demeanor of late does not project an image of a company fully in control of its vision -- something Don explored earlier. In interviews he's indicated that he feels singled out because of the company's success and that he must prove the RIM's virtue again and again. Sorry Mike, but you haven't been singled out because you're so successful and it isn't the media that's short-sighted. On the outside it looks like your company is sitting dormant while competitors have made strides to steal customers from right underneath you. It's time for an intervention, and for someone to formulate a plan to capitalize on current strengths -- BlackBerrys don't have thumbwheels any more.
Unlike some other less fortunate companies, RIM has a built-in group of core users for whom the BlackBerry is not only a phone, but a part of their lives. This is nearly unheard of in this industry -- and probably only rivaled by Apple -- so it's not something to be taken for granted. I'm still in college for a few more years, and I haven't found anything worthy of replacing my BBM list, so for now I'll keep double fisting. But look, I can only carry two phones for so long...