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The Engadget Interview: RIM CMO Frank Boulben

Brian Heater

It's been said before that RIM CEO Thorsten Heins surely has one of the toughest jobs in tech. It's a title he no doubt shares with Frank Boulben, the company's newly minted CMO. After all, it's Boulben who will be taking charge of the marketing for the company so badly in need of a new image. The Orange / Vodafone expat, naturally, sees very bright things ahead for Research in Motion's future -- a future that hinges almost entirely on the success of the company's much delayed BlackBerry 10.

Like Heins, Boulben insists that all who have seen the much anticipated mobile operating system thus far have been thoroughly impressed -- it's a sentiment that we certainly can't debate. Of course, given all of the trouble the company has run into bringing the OS to market, the number of folks who can claim membership in that exclusive club is small indeed. When the first BB10 devices finally hit early next year, Boulben's team will be tasked with making sure that number increases significantly enough to ensure the company's success in a field that is increasingly dominated by the likes of Android and iOS.

We spoke to Boulben about his plans to help spread the BlackBerry gospel, the time he spent as an executive at the also-troubled Lightsquared and the changes RIM must make to ensure it's success in the future.

It's an interesting time for you guys.

'Interesting' is an interesting word [laughs].

Well, how would you describe it?

I think it's a time of change for the company, significant change.

We have, as you know, a new management team on board. Starting with Thorsten, myself, Kristian [Tear] -- we've got a new CEO, a new Chief Legal Officer, new head of human resources, etc. So, we have a big change in terms of management team, and a big change in the way we are looking at our operating models. We are addressing our cuts very aggressively, aiming at saving one billion dollars this fiscal year. And a big change because we are working on the launch on BlackBerry 10 which will be the foundation for ten years to come for the company and a primary source of differentiation and education and moving forward. I think 'change' is the right word.

It's interesting that you bring up the new management, since that was one of the chief concerns with the last shareholder's meeting. There were some new people on-board and obviously Thorsten is fairly new to the company, as well. But there was a fair amount of criticism that it was a reelection of folks who had been in place for sometime at RIM.

I think the chairwoman of the board commented on that, that the company is seeking to extend and augment the range of experience of the board. That is on-going. She mentioned that an executive is helping the board in recruiting new directors and that they were looking at broad experience across geographies. That affords us the ability to bring fresh blood and different experience to the board. But with respect to the management, as I was mentioning, it's done. We're now all recruited and pretty much all on-board, so that allows Thorsten and a new leadership team to take a fresh look at what needs to be done

Do you agree then with the sentiment that the board needs some fresh blood, as well?

Yes, I think everybody agrees with that.

In terms of your own experience, what do you bring to the table?

I've had 20 years experience in wireless. I've spent most of my career in marketing and strategy roles in wireless, so obviously I bring that functional expertise. I've managed an iconic brand, Orange, in 20 countries. At the time the brand was challenged. I've also brought up Orange and transformed the marketing organization and redefined the role of the global marketing versus the local marketing. So that's on the functional side. Obviously, I know very well the carrier perspective on devices and on RIM, in particular. So I think that's what I bring to the table: the functional expertise in marketing and the knowledge of the carrier world.

You were at Lightsquared for a period as well.

Yes. As you know, Lightsquared was a wholesale-only carrier, so in my role at Lightsquared, I signed more than 40 wholesale contracts with a variety of players in the industry: carriers like Sprint and Leap, but also retailers like Best Buy or device manufacturers like Sharp. That allowed me to increase my knowledge of the sector and a number of those players are also RIM customers, so that's helpful.

Things have been difficult on the Lightsquared side, as well. Do you see parallels between RIM and Lightsquared?

None whatsoever. Lightsquared was given a license by the FCC two years ago with a mandate to cover 90-percent of the US population by 2015. And because there were some different issues that were unresolved, that license has been suspended. The pure regulatory issue on the strategy and marketing and sales for which I was responsible at Lightsquared, we did extremely well. As I said, I signed more than 40 contracts, including a $15 billion groundbreaking deal. It was the first network sharing deal in the US. So I'm very proud of my track record with Lightsquared on the marketing / sales front. I was not enrolled on the regulatory side, and that was unfortunate, but that tells me there is absolutely no parallel with RIM. RIM has no regulatory issues in any way similar to the issue Lightsquared was facing.

If the concerns for Lightsquared were largely regulatory, do you feel like you can point to what the sources of the problems were over at RIM?

As much as I would like to spend time analyzing the past, I'm focusing 100-percent of my time and energy on the future.

As much as I would like to spend time analyzing the past, I'm focusing 100-percent of my time and energy on the future. It's my fifth week with RIM and I'm really focused on two things. The first one is preparing a successful launch of BlackBerry 10, and secondly, it's building the world-class marketing organization. And so analyzing the past doesn't help that much to achieve those objectives. What I can tell you is that, on the branded side, what is noticeable is that in that last period the management of that brand will now be decentralized, and so today we have some fragmentation and replication across countries. Moving toward the launch of BlackBerry 10, I will implement a much more unified approach to marketing, so that we can leverage our scale and we make sure the best practice is implemented everywhere.

In your short period with the company, has the company's morale generally been high? Are people looking forward toward the future at RIM?

Yes. Obviously I have a lot of empathy for the people who are going to leave the company, and it's not easy for them. We are trying to do the right things and do them as fast as we can. But having said that, yes, there is a great sense of excitement because many people internally have touched and felt the BlackBerry 10 experience and they are very excited about the new platform. The fact that there are new leaders like myself or Kristian coming in with very positive outlook on the company is also energizing the troops. But truly, the BlackBerry 10 platform -- what people have seen of it has really energized and excited them.

I saw some bits and pieces of the BlackBerry 10 experience before I joined, but now we are much closer to a product that is ready to be launched, and I stop and play with it. I think it really is a significant change in the smartphone experience. I think we've been living now for five years in the paradigm that is the in-and-out paradigm: your user interface and your smartphone is defined by a page, a whole page on which you have icons. You click on one icon to do something and then you press the home button to come back and press on another icon to do something else. That's what I call in-and-out paradigm.

The BlackBerry 10 paradigm is radically different in that you will be always "in," going from one application to another without going back to a home button and with a rich integration across applications. You can have some experience of that new interface on the Playbook, but on the smartphone we take it to a whole different level. So I think that is really something that excites people internally, and quite frankly that is the foundation for future success because I firmly believe it's all about differentiation and with BlackBerry 10, we will redefine the space again. We won't be a copycat.

RIM execs have often mentioned that everybody who's seen the operating system has been very excited about it, and that's true on our end as well. But how do you get that experience out there? How do you actually bring that to people?

I think it all starts with the fact that we have today a huge bay of customers. We have 78 million customers worldwide, and the number is growing. In a number of countries throughout the world, we are the number one smartphone brand. As you know, we are number one in South America, South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, very strong in Italy. So, even in the US we still have a substantial number of hardcore BlackBerry fans. So to me the first step in our go-to market for BlackBerry 10 will be to make sure our existing customers very early on are exposed to what BlackBerry 10 will do for them.

We will start a bottom-up, grassroots positive buzz. I think today customers / consumers don't accept a top-down authoritative message -- they have to believe in it. It will start by putting the right phone in the right hands. Also, we have a huge following on Facebook, we are the number one OEM brand on Facebook. We have more than 22 million followers. So we are in a very good position to start and create positive momentum about BlackBerry 10 to our existing customer base.

The first device that's going to launch with BlackBerry 10 will be a touch screen device, and Thorsten touched on this a little bit during the shareholder's meeting: out of the gate, it seems that you're focused on consumers in a way that maybe RIM hasn't been in the past -- not strictly business / enterprise customers.

It think that it is very much a US-centric view, because when I look at the customer base, on a worldwide basis, it is not skewed toward enterprise anymore. The enterprise customers are in the minority of our customer base. We don't disclose that split, but I can tell you it's a minority of customers when I look on a worldwide basis. So obviously we are absolutely determined to continue and be the best-in-class solution for enterprise, and alongside, we want to affirm an alternative that is competitive in different shapes for consumers, and also, the bring-your-own-device markets. So to go after those two objectives, we will have devices that are touch screen only and devices that are hybrids with keyboards and touch screens. On both occasions, we intend to have the best keyboard, be it touch only or a physical keyboard, and we've given a sneak preview at BlackBerry World of how we will deliver the best touch screen keyboard.

Aside from RIM's continued dedication to the QWERTY keyboard and the move away from the "in-and-out experience," as you mentioned before – what else is BlackBerry 10 bringing to the table? If you were pitching this device to an iOS of Android user, what points would you use to convince them to make that change?

I think, fundamentally it's a device that will help you to get things done more efficiently than other smartphones. It's designed with that objective in mind: allowing you to manage more efficiently all your circle of contacts, professional, friends and family across different accounts: e-mailing, messaging, social networking, etc., your calendar, your tasks -- all in an integrated flow, which does not exist today in any smartphone experience. So that's the novel differentiation. Obviously, it's a challenge for me to describe that with words, but as soon as you see the first videos putting into a real context that 'flow,' you'll see how distinctive that real experience is. So that will be the primary differentiator. Think of it as a new user experience, a new interface.

Will RIM be working more with hardware or software partners -- or possibly looking to bring BBM to other operating systems?

We are looking at those questions without any taboos, and we are looking at them with their respective merits.

There is a strategy review that is going on with the leadership team. We are looking at all those questions, but those conclusions have not been reached yet. I cannot comment on them. The only thing I can say as a member of the management team is that we are looking at those questions without any taboos, and we are looking at them with their respective merits.

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