Why RIM could and should bounce back: Mobile needs to innovate

By Jesse Rodgers 

RIM has had a hard time since Apple’s iPhone came out.

Apple did more than bring the world a touch screen and the app store. It took apart the carrier/phone model on which RIM was an absolute genius at building a strong company. Most people focus on feature for feature device comparison but in reality it is what happened behind the scenes that I think hurt RIM the most.

As important as the iPhone has been to the fortunes of Apple and AT&T, its real impact is on the structure of the $11 billion-a-year US mobile phone industry.

For decades, wireless carriers have treated manufacturers like serfs, using access to their networks as leverage to dictate what phones will get made, how much they will cost, and what features will be available on them. Handsets were viewed largely as cheap, disposable lures, massively subsidized to snare subscribers and lock them into using the carriers’ proprietary services. But the iPhone upsets that balance of power. Carriers are learning that the right phone — even a pricey one — can win customers and bring in revenue. Now, in the pursuit of an Apple-like contract, every manufacturer is racing to create a phone that consumers will love, instead of one that the carriers approve of. “The iPhone is already changing the way carriers and manufacturers behave,” says Michael Olson, a securities analyst at Piper Jaffray. – Wired, 2008

RIM was slow to adapt to this shift (not as tragically slow as Nokia was) but if it can hold on, it could learn from what has happened so far in mobile. Instead of playing catch up it can lead the next phase.

I am bored with the iPhone and not impressed at all with Android — carriers have used its OS to try and claw back control of the device OS version which has resulted in a crazy amount of fragmentation. I do like Windows 8 because Microsoft thinks far more about how people use mobile and have at least tried a new way of using apps. Windows might gain some life on Nokia devices, but the user experience might not be how people want to use the device.

Where is mobile going? Here is my “top things that will drive evolution of mobile” list:

  • Mobile needs to integrate better with how humans function. Nokia is right in that mobile devices demand too much of our attention. The Toronto Police are concerned about this and are“clamping down” on distracted pedestrians. The user experience needs to change so it demands less attention.
  • Your device is your mobile computing platform  for both personal and professional use. The demand for Pebble demonstrates that people really want other things to work with their phone. BYOD is an IT office coup in terms of keeping costs down but it opens up a big can of worms when it comes to managing the devices. And who the heck wants to carry a wallet with swipe cards around anymore? This also includes home entertainment as it has to work easily with anything that would share your data.
  • Cameras are an essential tool on mobile — if you don’t have a great sensor and lens that doesn’t scratch then people simply won’t buy the phone. Cameras are essential because humans prefer to communicate with images and people with kids like to take pictures all the time.

Enter RIM’s opportunity. It is a company that got “cloud” on mobile before people called it “cloud.” It also built the best email/msg/input device, period, which is also light on data. As much as we like the real web on mobile, when there are a lot people in one place or you are in a concrete building or underground or some place in between towers or without decent 3G, it would be nice to at least be able to message people. RIM can do that better than anyone. An iPhone 4S on Edge is painful and I would imagine so is Android and maybe Windows.

If RIM can build a high-quality device that can reduce the attention it takes to use it, have a clear divide between business and personal, and have some kick-ass integration while not losing the things it does well, I would be excited to use the device.

I realize that isn’t all that easy to figure out because features alone won’t cut it. The device has to be experimental in how it works and will take some big crazy vision to discover it on both the device level and the how-to-deliver-it-to-customers level.

I am hopeful that RIM can deliver me from my Apple dependency – Android certainly can’t.

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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