Alas, poor RIM and BlackBerry, we knew them well

Summary:Jason Perlow delivers his eulogy for the dearly departed Research in Motion (RIM) and the BlackBerry product line.

Jason Perlow delivers his eulogy for the dearly departed Research in Motion (RIM) and the BlackBerry product line.

Despite my history of strong criticism regarding Research in Motion, I never, ever wanted to see the company fail.

RIM, without a doubt, was one of Canada's most important technology companies, if not the most important technology company in that country since the rise and fall of Nortel Networks.

Because the United States and Canada are inseparable allies and have economies and businesses which are in many ways co-dependent, the continued success of the most important technology company in Canada was critically important for our technology industry as well.

It's key that we state the importance of what the company represented so that we understand the full extent of the loss when RIM does eventually meet its end.

While I am not the only member of the New Media that is eulogizing RIM while the company is still alive, I still intend to give it the respect that it is due.

RIM may not have been "United Statesian" in nationality, but it was an American company. And that means they are family, whether they fly the same flag at their corporate headquarters in Waterloo as us or not.

So when we see a company like RIM going through its death throes, like a beached whale, or a loved family member on life support who we know will never return to health, and that the inevitable is coming, it is a tragic occurrence.

And it is a particularly painful and traumatic thing to observe, especially when we have seen this sort of thing happen before.

Nobody who is an American wants to see this. Not me, not anyone who is a firm believer why continued innovation in technology must remain on this continent, and at more than just a handful of companies.

But we cannot say that we did not see this coming. Clearly, we knew that RIM was sick and its health was failing very early in 2011, particularly with the massive drop in market share starting in the summer of 2010 which has only gotten worse and worse.

However, the signs and portents leading up to the rapid deterioration of the company go back much, much earlier.

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When did things start to go terribly wrong for RIM? I'm going to have to say the moment that Apple launched the iPhone SDK and Developer Program, and created an App Store in the summer of 2008.

RIM's failure to recognize this key ecosystem building strategy early on, and having to launch its own BlackBerry App World almost a year later was a critical mistake.

But it was only part of a long series of blunders by the company's management that seemingly continue right up until the end of the story.

Another critical error was simply allowing its platform to rest on its laurels. OS 4 and OS 5 were already long in the tooth in 2007/2008 when the iPhone really began to surge in popularity.

That the company lacked modern mobile web browsing on its platform was a serious deficit as well, which it only partially remedied via its Torch Mobile acquisition in the summer of 2009.

RIM could not fully reap the rewards of Torch and its Iris Browser (which was written for Windows Mobile) until it could utilize its Webkit developers to produce a modern browser for OS 6, which launched on the BlackBerry Torch exactly a year later.

The Torch, however, was largely panned by critics as being underpowered compared to other smartphones on the market at the time, which included a phalanx of much more advanced Android devices that began to emerge onto the market in late 2009, beginning with the Android 2.x-based Motorola Droid on Verizon.

So now between the Droid on Verizon (and its many Froyo-based copies that would follow on various carriers in 2010) and the iPhone on AT&T, the seemingly invincible BlackBerry that was holding onto its Enterprise customers with an iron grip was now losing ground and being flanked on the largest growth market for smartphones, the consumer.

Indeed, my own personal separation from the BlackBerry collective occurred when I was forced into terminating my AT&T contract because my employer had to cut costs and instructed me to terminate my service.

I was being given a cheaper "dumb" phone on a more reliable provider, and that if I wanted a phone with data capabilities, I would have to go out and purchase one and pay for the data plan myself.

So it was in November of 2009, I found myself with a new Verizon Droid.

[Bring Your Own, The Attack of the Droids and QNX Quagmires]»

My separation from my own corporate BlackBerry was by no means unique. Many companies were cutting down on their BlackBerry phones, reserving them for only key management personnel. Those people who still wanted BlackBerries with BES capability would have to "Bring their Own".

This BYO model is becoming increasingly popular, now that companies such as Good Technology are providing enterprise-grade mobile messaging and device management for Android and iOS.

But besides the BYO model cutting into enterprise sales, and the Android and iPhone two-pronged assault on consumer market share that it was fighting back in order to maintain its lead in the smartphone race (one that would get even more difficult to fight once Verizon launched its own iPhone) the fact remained that the core technology in the BlackBerry phones itself was still not good enough; this despite the improvements made in OS 6 with the Webkit browser and improved UI.

RIM did not fully understand the serious defecit of its technology gap until the announcement of the first Apple iPad in January of 2010.

In purely reactive fashion, realizing that they had no advanced platform to compete with either Apple's iOS or Google's Android, they purchased QNX, another Canadian firm, in April of 2010. QNX had an advanced, mature RTOS, but it lacked all of the necessary pieces to turn it into a comprehensive tablet and smartphone OS.

That burden would have to lie on the Torch folks to produce the browser, a partnership with Adobe to provide an application development framework in the form of AIR, and development of a brand-new, in-house UI.

That OS and framework eventually became the foundation for the BlackBerry Tablet OS, that eventually shipped on the PlayBook, which launched one month after Apple's iPad 2, now over 65,000 native applications strong.

The PlayBook's launch was marred by the fact that it had almost no native applications to run on it, and that Adobe AIR was the only way to produce apps for it. The native C++ SDK for producing high-performance apps and games has still not yet shipped, and only just today has the WebWorks SDK become available.

And let's not even get into the quagmire that is BlackBerry Bridge and an actual BlackBerry handset which are currently required if you even want to access email and PIM functions on a PlayBook. This achilles heel is expected to be remedied, but not for several months.

The PlayBook's Java VM, which would have allowed key developers to port their J2ME-based apps from legacy BlackBerry phones to the PlayBook also is not yet available. And to muddy the waters even further in a desperate attempt to close the "App Gap", an Android application "Player" which was promised at the last BlackBerry World is not due at least until the end of the summer.

How much worse can this possibly get? You get one of your key executives on record to talk about QNX replacing BlackBerry OS 7 sometime in 2012. Never mind the fact that the first BlackBerry OS 7 device, the Bold 9900, hasn't even shipped yet.

All of this has resulted in complete mess for what should have been RIM's proudest product launch of the decade. PlayBook sales have been abysmal, less than half of what had been initially projected. Earnings as a whole have been far below expectations and the company is now laying off an unspecified amount of employees.

No, RIM hasn't actually died yet. The company could easily continue in its state of decrepitude for a year or two. But we know that this sharp decline into mobile irrelevance cannot continue indefinitely, and it will not end well.

Talks of acquisition by parties such as Microsoft are already swirling around -- and if Redmond is truly where RIM's IP actually ends up, we can be certain that the BlackBerry products that we know of today will almost certainly cease to exist.

Is Research in Motion and the BlackBerry product line only a year-end earnings report away from a DNR? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware, BlackBerry, Mobile OS, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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