As the BlackBerry World turns… Is it gaining any traction?

On the No Jitter blog, Michael Finneran of dBrn Associates offers a glimpse of optimism for RIM after attending BlackBerry World, the company’s annual conference:

I spent most of last week at BlackBerry World (formerly Wireless Enterprise Symposium), RIM’s annual industry event, and despite what you may have been reading in the trade press, the company is far from dead. They made several important announcements (including one truly surprising one), and focused considerable attention on the recently introduced PlayBook tablet.

But what does “far from dead” really mean? It’s certainly not thriving or growing, as recent earnings and sales data suggest. Is it just “getting by”? Or is it dying then? That’s what most bloggers posit. And there are lots of them who see RIM on a course to implosion (the best analysis I’ve read on this matter from Michael Mace).

Of course, at such a major company event, the executives and marketing folks want attendees to leave with the impression that BlackBerry devices create double rainbows and run on unicorn farts. I can see why Finneran also saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Evidently Steve Jobs isn’t the only CEO who can generate a “reality distortion field”…

But it’s kind of dangerous to link a company’s survival with the number of employees, partners, and traffic from a popular app:

The company is still a powerhouse with 17,500 employees worldwide and selling through 550 carriers in 170 countries; traffic on their BlackBerry Messenger service grew 332% last year. The company has scale and resources, but they can’t seem to shake the market perception that they are “stodgy” now that Apple and Android have burst onto the scene. They are taking steps to address the marketing problems. RIM’s chief marketing officer, Keith Pardy left the company in March after a two-year stay and on the eve of the PlayBook launch; he has not been replaced. Last Friday, Roger Baxter was appointed VP of brand and marketing communications, replacing Paul Kalbfleisch whose title had been VP of brand creativity.

Remember Nortel? Just three years ago Nortel employed over 32,000 workers globally and it had many partners as well as an established customer base. RIM still employs lots of people, but I’m not sure of its “powerhouse” status.

Admittedly, RIM does have a marketing problem, but that’s not the only problem. That’s not even the main problem. Look at the new phones it announced at the show. The Bold 9900 and 9930 to run the new BlackBerry 7 OS. It looks like the BlackBerry from five years ago but slimmer and shinier, and with a comparatively tiny touch screen (yes, it still has a physical keyboard). On the network side, it won’t support LTE but runs 802.11n WiFi on either the 2.4 or 5 GHz channels (iPhone’s 2.4 GHz-only WiFi is “useless for corporate deployments”). It will have NFC, however — RIM may beat Apple in that regard (but then there’s the rumor of OS 7 devices being delayed)…

And the best indicator of any sizable tech company in a struggle for survival? A closer partnership with Microsoft. It happened to Apple many years ago (Apple has since turned itself around), it happened to Nokia recently (results still yet to be seen), and now it’s happening to RIM.

Its flagship tablet, the PlayBook, isn’t basking in the glow of spectacular reviews, either. Plus, search through Craigslist and you’ll find plenty of PlayBooks (even brand new in box) for sale — below its retail price of $499 (16 GB WiFi base model). Even more troubling is seeing quite a few owners willing to trade the PlayBook to get another tablet such as the iPad or Xoom. Worse yet, it looks like RIM indeed rushed things to put the PlayBook on store shelves as BlackBerry Bridge — its centerpiece connectivity software to link to a BlackBerry smartphone — wasn’t even delivered to AT&T until a few days before launch.

RIM definitely needs to improve on its execution to prevent a BlackBerry world collapse. Consumers love choices and options, and a market without BlackBerrys would indeed be a very, very sad place.


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