How RIM still hasn't learned the Windows Vista lesson

How RIM still hasn't learned the Windows Vista lesson

Summary: RIM needs to make sure it has the fundamentals in place if it wants to be a player in the smartphone market. That means it needs to learn the same lesson that Microsoft did a few years back.

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Microsoft and RIM are more alike than either company would be comfortable to admit.

Both RIM and Microsoft are both converging on a new mobile computing platform that spans handsets, tablets and other devices: 82-inch touchscreens and desktop PCs in Microsoft's case, cars and home entertainment for RIM.

BB10
RIM is putting all its hopes into BlackBerry 10. Image credit: Ben Woods/ZDNet
They both have a variety of development frameworks and approaches, including native code and HTML5 plus novel methods of inter-app communications, they're both wooing developers and promising a clean, digital-first interface.

Both are supposed to be launching a new operating system and the devices to run it on in time for Christmas. But here's the big difference - only one of them will.

Microsoft is continuing to under-promise and over-deliver with Windows 8 (no date for Windows Phone 8 yet, but given that team hasn't missed a deadline in two years, I'm expecting October or November for Apollo).

So far the calendar this year has run from Consumer Preview on 29 February to Release Preview at the end of May to RTM the first week in August and general availability - and Surface on sale - in October.

BlackBerry 10 delays

RIM on the other hand has pushed the launch date for BlackBerry 10 back repeatedly. CEO Thorsten Heins is currently talking about January for the touchscreen BlackBerry 10 handset, with a QWERTY model soon after.

What's the reason for the delays? Well, rebuilding your entire operating system and development stack takes time. The teams at RIM are working hard; back in May various folks at RIM told us about people staying late and working weekends and basically running in start-up mode. That's now official, with holidays off the agenda.

But something else that Heins said this week made me worry more about BlackBerry 10 than anything I've heard so far. Heins told CIO magazine that the delay is down to integration issues:

"The delay of BlackBerry 10 is not because we added stuff to it. The delay is because our software groups were actually so successful in coding the various feature components and building blocks that when we put them into the main 'trunk line,' as we call it, when we wanted to build the first main release, we got overwhelmed by integration efforts. I had to make a decision. I could actually have kept the schedule, if I had made a sacrifice on quality and on platform stability."

Why it worries me is that is suggests RIM doesn't have one of the most fundamental issues of creating an operating system under control: how to take individual features and bring them together in a working build.

Build system

The build system is at the heart of how Microsoft creates Windows; it's no accident that the developer conference announcing Windows 8 was called BUILD.

There's a new build of Windows almost every day internally, with continuous integration of new code and repeated testing of how the new code affects every other part of the system. The high quality of the Windows 7 and Windows 8 pre-release code is a testament to how well the build and integration system in the Windows team works now. And with Surface, Microsoft is tackling the hardware integration side as well, something it's left to partners in the months between RTM and GA in the past.

Part of that high quality is a response to the debacle of Vista, where integration of subsystems was only one of the problems. The pieces that were developed as Longhorn never came together into a working operating system and what shipped as Vista was effectively a new OS written after the project was restarted partway through.

Many of the changes Steven Sinofsky made to the way the Windows division is structured were to address these issues, taking the agile-like idea of Feature Crews from Office and organising them in product groups for each major component, with a very flat reporting structure.

There's a fascinating description of the problems in the way the Longhorn-era Windows team was organised in I M Wright's Hard Code, a collection of columns originally published internally at Microsoft (I reviewed it here last year), with suggestions on how the division could be reorganised that closely matches Sinofsky's reorg.

Platform transition

A platform transition is a difficult thing to pull off. It's why Steve Ballmer keeps saying he's betting the company on Windows 8. Apple only managed it by bringing back Steve Jobs and adopting the operating system he'd had NeXT building.

RIM is doing something similar by starting with the proven QNX kernel, but it certainly can't afford a Vista: BlackBerry 10 has to be not just good but great to keep the company in the smartphone market.

And that means not just writing great feature code; it means building a world-class integration pipeline that can put the BlackBerry 10 pieces together - and then do it all again in a year's time to keep up with new versions of iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

It's not as sexy as a new screen or a great industrial design or a whizzy new interface, but it's absolutely fundamental and RIM has to get it right. Quickly.

Topics: Mobile OS, BlackBerry

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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12 comments
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  • The problem with analysts/journalists

    You have written about a subject that can only be based on an opinion as you are not able to have a hands on with BB10 phone as it is not released yet. It makes a refreshing change that a technology company publicly states that it is going to make sure that their product meets its expectations before releasing it. Considering the pressure RIM is under people should respect that rather generating headline stories.

    Apple nearly went bust and it was only when Steve Jobs did come back that they took off again. Apple made a lot of mistakes, anyone remember the Lisa and the Newton?
    Next was not particularly successful when Apple bought it.

    I am not an employee of RIM and I do not use their phone, unfortunately I have to use a Nokia.

    I hope that RIM and their employees do turn it round just as Steve did all those years ago.
    pjc158
    • "when it's ready"

      "We'll ship it when it's ready" has been Microsoft's mantra for most of the 20 years I've been writing about them, but if you don't have the basics of how you build your product right then it's going to take you a long time to deliver something good. I'm hoping that RIM can deliver on the promise of Blackberry 10; what I've seen of it as ideas is excellent. But RIM can't afford the 18+ months of vapourware that Apple had with Mac OS X beta, because however much Heins impresses me - and he does - he doesn't have the reality distortion field to pull that off.
      mary.branscombe
      • Blinkered view

        Yes Microsoft has taken that stance but what they have often shipped was not worth it, e.g. Windows ME, Vista etc. and I am not particuarly excited about Windows 8, but it is just my opinion.

        Howeve QNX has been around for a long time and is a hardened operating system. It is the components that sit on top of that RIM are integrating, e.g. UI, mail etc. If they have been all developed seperately in the past and are now being integerated under a totally new UI, then there are going to be issues which will need to be sorted out. If you have never built anything then you will not understand this.

        Do RIM need to be the market leader I don't know, it depends how greedy the shareholders are.

        From what I have seen and actually played with I personally believe BB10 will be succesful.

        What you should really be asking is whether RIM should be actually making the hardware or should they contract it out like Apple, after all it seems to work for them.

        Hey what do I know I don't run their business.
        pjc158
        • RIM incapable of delivering a QNX BBX Phone ?

          "Howeve QNX has been around for a long time and is a hardened operating system. It is the components that sit on top of that RIM are integrating, e.g. UI, mail etc. If they have been all developed seperately in the past and are now being integerated under a totally new UI, then there are going to be issues which will need to be sorted out. If you have never built anything then you will not understand this."

          RIM have owned QNX for over 2 years now. How long does it take ?

          Wasn't the QNX purchase to give them a leg up with a bulletproof OS underneath, that needed the Blackberry UI skinned on it ?

          You've got to question strategy and competancy, as when they bought Easter 2010, the talk was of the QNX powered Blackberry Colt next summer (2011).

          Agreed, the company lost focus on the Playbook misadvanture, but lordy, can they deliver anything new ?
          neil.postlethwaite
  • There's not room for QNX

    With Amazon about to beat RIM to the punch, RIM very well may be toast. The market simply does not need QNX as another ecosystem. For now, Samsung and Google own the Android space. Assuming MS launches W8 / WP8 successfully, Nokia made the right call, viewing HTC through the crowded Android lens. RIM should either go Android or WP, with the MS' position in the enterprise making more sense. Google would probably only buy RIM's patents, whereas MS may buy the whole company. MS, launch WP8 and be prepared to buy Nokia and RIM by mid next year, if necessary.
    jjworleyeoe
  • They didn't bebuild their O/S though, radical overhaul, sell-up

    RIM didn;t rebuild their O/S, they bought the respected QNX for a leg up. Why they are taking so long, is beyond me - the QNX BB based Playboox has been out for over a year now.

    Perhaps the issues is less QNX, and more the BES client embedded deep within and O/S fragmented to death?

    RIM don;t need to learn the Vista lesson, they need to learn the Sega lesson - Hardware once you are not the darling is a money swamp - see RIM and Nokia.

    RIM -

    - Exit Hardware
    - Spin back out QNX
    - Develop Full BES Clients for IOS, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian, Bada, Nokia System XX
    - Develop BES Lite clients for PS3, Wii, DS, PS Vita, and most importantly Kindle/Kindle Fire
    - Sell yourself to Amazon, who can migrate BES Backend to AWS, and give free BES Client Service to Prime members.
    neil.postlethwaite
  • Orwellian Headline

    This headline "How RIM still hasn't learned the Windows Vista lesson" implies the opposite of what is actually happening. The Windows Vista lesson is to not release a half baked operating system. RIM is pushing the release date back because it refuses to do just that. Your headline serves no valuable purpose. It simply adds to the negative journalist dog-pile for the sake of a story. Disappointed.
    smather
    • there are a lot of Vista lessons

      Vista was a great OS - if you put it on a brand new PC with 4GB of RAM; otherwise, yes, it had problems. One of the key factors causing those was integration (this could easily get Spanish Inquisition, so I'll stick with one). Taking the time to get that right: vital. Discovering this late in the process that it's a problem? Worrying. Another Vista lesson is that you can't leave it too long to release a new OS (and yes, it has to be ready to release when you ship it). I've been saying since May that it's all about execution, and that RIM has to remember that execution is either something you do, or something you have done to you.
      mary.branscombe
      • Since the beginning of RIM bashing...

        I've been reading stories like this. There are 3 types of people in this world. (1) Those who do the actual work. (2) Those who talk about the actual work (plus giving all sorts of 'should have and should not haves', and (3) Those who consume the products.

        Those who can say that Vista is good or any MS windows OS is good probably don't do enough development/deployment/service support work on them to see the issues in depth.

        In spite of all the bashing, where is RIM now compared to months ago? My view is that they are in a better position. The number ONE lesson that companies need to learn is NOT TO LAUNCH a half baked product due to market pressure. Can RIM soak up the pressure? Well, I believe come another 6 months, they'll have more people respecting them for what they've done.

        It is also extremely silly to believe that there is no space in the market for BB10. There's always space in the market for any experience that solves real problems in a solid and sustainable way, with a WOW factor. Why do you think there's so many BB fans around the world till now amidst an increasingly fickle marketplace?

        As for me, I've used iPhone (expensive toy) that sucks. I'm using Nexus (crashes sometimes) and I've been waiting for BB10 (with long suffering) to come.

        QNX? Many people still don't realize what something that runs inside the space station, cars, etc will do for their handset. BB10 will get to educate the market what multi-tasking means. And QNX is way above Android and iOS in this respect.
        Samuel Koh
  • Blackberry

    I don't really care about BB 10. Why? I have a BB Torch that I use an like very much. It's extremely solid and rugged, has both a touch screen and a real keyboard, a good camera, A/V features, it's not too big, and works seamlessly with Exchange without 3rd party apps (which puts it in a class above iPhones and ahead of Androids). When my Torch gives out (will it ever?), then I will consider other options.
    bb_apptix
    • RIM's keyboard

      I don't know why everyone goes on about RIM's keyboard, it's hateful rubbish and only of any use if you are 8 years old with mini-fingers. Not a patch on the slider/landscape on my HTC WinMo phone 3 years back, which is actually useable.
      neil.postlethwaite
  • I think there's a glaring error in this report

    Where it reads
    "RIM is doing something similar by starting with the proven QNX kernel, but it certainly can't afford a Vista: BlackBerry 10 has to be not just good but great to keep the company in the smartphone market."

    it should read
    "RIM is doing something similar by starting with the proven QNX kernel, but it certainly can't afford a Vista: BlackBerry 10 has to be not just good but great to keep the company Alive"
    topio