Editorial: RIM's new CEO isn't the shakeup it needed

For a brief moment, I had hopes that RIM had made a move that would unseat it from the funk it's been sitting in for years. And then I watched the introductory video of newly-appointed CEO Thorsten Heins. Anyone who assumes that a simple CEO swap is the answer to all of RIM's issues is woefully misinformed, or worse, just blinded by false hope. Sure, removing Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis -- both of which have been rightly criticized for not responding to market pressures quickly enough -- is a start, but it's not like they're gone. In fact, the two are still situated at a pretty fancy table within Research in Motion's organizational chart.

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Have a listen at this: Mike is hanging around as the Vice Chair of RIM's Board and Chair of the Board's new Innovation Committee. You heard right -- the guy who has outrightly failed to innovate at anything in the past handful of years is now championing an innovation committee. Sounds right up his alley, no? Jim's staying put as an outright director, and if you think anyone at RIM is going to brush aside the input of the founders, you're wrong. Jim and Mike may have new titles, but they're still here, and I have no reason to believe that they'll act radically different going forward than they have in the past. Oh, and about Thorsten Heins? Let's go there.

According to RIM's own profile of Heins, he held several positions in the wireless arena prior to joining the company in 2009. He was the Chief Technology Officer of Siemens' Communications Division, and held several general management positions in Hardware and Software businesses. For those firmly planted in the present, you may not remember the wilds of 2007; by my own estimation, that's when the entire smartphone arena was turned upside-down by one multifaceted device. In '07, the BlackBerry was a potent communicator -- the OS was comparatively snappy, BBM was a hit and the hardware was practically unparalleled. And then, iPhone OS was launched.

Almost overnight, consumer expectations regarding smartphones changed. They weren't swayed; they were obliterated and reborn. Suddenly, BlackBerry OS looked antediluvian, and it has ever since. What's all this have to do with Heins? A lot, I'd say. Before being given the CEO badge, he served as Chief Operating Officer, Product Engineering, overseeing the BlackBerry smartphone portfolio worldwide. Digest that for a moment -- this is the guy who oversaw the same BlackBerry smartphone platform that the entire North American (and beyond) consumer base has been lambasting for being so last decade. This guy not only had a hand in pushing out countless lackluster phones over the past five years, but he was at the top of it. He had plenty of power to make changes -- radical or subtle -- in what was coming out of Waterloo, and so far as I can tell, he didn't. Color me jaded, but I have a hard time believing that the man in charge of some of the most forgettable BlackBerry handsets in recent memory will suddenly put RIM in a position to compete with and / or dominate the likes of iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Let's go back to that video introduction a bit. These are actual quotes from the mouth of RIM's new CEO:

  • "We have taken this to totally new heights and that journey isn't over yet."

  • "If we continue doing well what we're doing, I see no problems with us being in the top three players worldwide in the next years in wireless."

  • "At the very core of RIM is the innovation. We always think ahead. We always think forward. We sometimes think the unthinkable. And that is fantastic."

  • "Internally, from a process perspective, I think we need to get a bit more disciplined in our own processes."

  • "We are a great innovative company, but sometimes we innovate too much while we're building a product."

  • "What we need to get a bit better at here is to have a little bit more of an ear toward the consumer. I want the strengthen this by bringing really good marketing expertise in."

  • "...With the 'Be Bold' campaigns, starting right now, I find this really exciting. I'm getting good feedback and we want to continue driving this."

  • "Don't lose focus on what the present is. Congratulations to the team; we've seen great success with PlayBook 2.0 at CES. We are heading absolutely in the right direction."

  • "BB 10, needless to say, we have to ship on time. I can't wait to see it."

  • "I'm also very performance driven. When we decide on getting something done, I want it to be done on time at good quality and at good cost. That defines our customer satisfaction."

I'm pulling for RIM as much as anyone. The absolute last thing I want is one less (good) option in the mobile market. But this CEO speak smacks of the exact same thinking that has positioned RIM where it is today: miles behind Android and iOS. He mentions "continuing" what RIM is doing. That's actually the exact opposite of what it should be doing. If he truly believes that RIM "always" thinks ahead, there are thousands -- perhaps millions -- of consumers and investors that would love to know who is stifling all of this innovation that's evidently happening internally. He's getting great feedback on the Be Bold campaign? Who, exactly, is feeding him this line? In the consumer world, I can think of a handful of campaigns that are getting far more traction than the touting of a smartphone platform that hasn't innovated in the better part of Android's life on this planet. If he's seen "great reviews" on PlayBook 2.0, he's reading from the wrong book -- the hard truth is that RIM's tablet hopes are decidedly grim without a vivacious developer community that doesn't yet exist. Oh, and he can't wait to see BlackBerry OS 10? By the time BB OS 10 hits, the iPhone 5 will be a reality. Need I really say more?

I fully understand that I'm being harsh here. Bullet, taken. But RIM needs more than an enthusiastic, intelligent guy who has already been soaked up in the company's culture. RIM needs a shock to the system. RIM needs a reboot. Truth be told, I'm getting an all-too-familiar "burning platform" vibe here, and while I'm not saying that RIM should just adopt Windows Phone or Android and toss the admittedly delectable QNX aside, Heins is clearly sipping some strange, strange sauce if he's mulling the licensing of BlackBerry 10 to other manufacturers. He also mentions great marketing -- ironic, given that the biggest RIM story in the past five years hit directly during an undoubtedly enormous event that had the attention of both Silicon Valley and New York. You think it's a minor thing that RIM's new CEO debuted on a Sunday evening whilst everyone else was watching an NFL game; I think it's something that could've been planned for a bit better. This is RIM's story to tell, and delivery is vital.

Perhaps, though, RIM's going to be perfectly fine situating itself in third or fourth place. Perhaps it has no intentions of ever trying to out-Apple Apple or one-up Google. But if Heins is secretly scheming to blow the socks off of either, I've yet to be convinced by the introductory clip embedded below. Tick, tock.