Windows Phone 'strength' undermines RIM's rebuilding

Windows Phone 'strength' undermines RIM's rebuilding

Summary: Calculations that Nokia has sold a million Lumia handsets made by averaging up all the analyst projects Bloomberg can find says less about actual sales figures (800,000 to 2 million is a large number but also a large margin of error) than it does about confidence in what Nokia and Microsoft have pulled off. They've taken two failing phone platforms with two unhappy developer ecosystems and taken - between them - a good few years of false starts and restarts to produce an overnight hit in a year.

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TOPICS: Windows
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Calculations that Nokia has sold a million Lumia handsets made by averaging up all the analyst projects Bloomberg can find says less about actual sales figures (800,000 to 2 million is a large number but also a large margin of error) than it does about confidence in what Nokia and Microsoft have pulled off. They've taken two failing phone platforms with two unhappy developer ecosystems and taken - between them - a good few years of false starts and restarts to produce an overnight hit in a year.

Nokia and Microsoft both took tough decisions, Windows Phone director Aaron Woodman told me at CES. " We walked away from what I would argue is a successful product to get to Windows Phone. Symbian is kind of in the same place we were with Windows Mobile. It was very successful, it had about 20-30% market share at the point when we made the decision to walk away from it. You know, usually companies tend to wait until they're at 5% share to make a pretty dramatic decision. [They made] their choice about making the choice when they were essentially the number one phone manufacturer on the planet. I have a lot of respect for that. It's much easier to make tough decisions from place of pain that place of success and I think they've done that with a lot of grace."

Grace isn't something many people are attributing to RIM this week, even thought it made a similar tough decision to make a similarly radical change quite some time ago and has been executing on it - at probably a similar pace to Microsoft and Nokia - and from a much higher market share (in almost every market except the US).

All those calls for RIM to drop BBOS 10 and get another operating system? That's what it already did when it bought QNX and pensioned off BBOS 7.

Like Microsoft last year, RIM has brought out a first version of its future OS with limited features but some excellent points. Try playing a game on PlayBook; it's like playing on a first generation Xbox according to the team at Marmalade who make a popular game engine (and they expect PlayBook 2 to be more powerful than a PlayStation 3 based on what they've seen of it). The 75 million BlackBerry users downloading their choice of 50,000 apps make developers money, but the top revenue generators on BlackBerry App World, according to RIM developer chief Alec Saunders at CES, are all PlayBook games. Yes, it was crazy that PlayBook didn't have a messaging app; it was crazy that Windows Phone launched without copy and paste too.

Also like Windows Phone in Mango, RIM is adding some really innovative features into those missing apps; If you've ever used the Gist tools on the Web or on BlackBerry you'll know how good they are at putting information about your social network in your inbox where it's useful to you. The PlayBook messaging and calendar and address book tools will have that built in, using the beautiful animated transitions courtesy of TAT and Qt and HTML5. The clean and whimsical user interface of Windows Phone has been key to its success; RIM's been putting the pieces together for a clean and pleasing user interface as well, although it's been much less in evidence than Mango.

Microsoft has needed to win over developers to Windows Phone and its evangelists have done a superb job. RIM is, by Saunder's estimate, about a third of the way through making the badly needed fixes to its developer program that he nicknames BlackBerry Jam. That could end up with a neater, more integrated set of developer and services than almost anyone else, but like everything else, RIM has been hard put to do things fast enough to keep up - because it's already busy making and selling and supporting millions of devices.

Between the good press for Windows Phone recently, and the disastrous effect of an unsubstantiated rumour about Samsung buying RIM that proved the market had lost confidence in the company (if baseless rumours can goose your stock price 10%, then you have an issue that the board can't ignore), RIM and RIM's co-CEOs suddenly ran out of time to prove that strategy.

Like every large, successful company, of course it's been complacent. Of course it's made mistakes. Chief among them might have been hoping that it could carry on working on its new direction at its own speed without the public self-flagellation that might appease the market; the apologies over the BlackBerry outage last summer didn't carry the same weight as Elop's burning platform memo. RIM has always been superb at executing technology as long as it could do it on its own timescale. Given that markets are as much about showmanship as sales figures, it hasn't helped that the co-CEOs haven't shown the stage presence of Elop or Ballmer. Mike Lazaridis is - and I say this as a compliment - a handset geek. You can sit down and discuss radio stacks and battery chemistry and antenna design with him and he knows the technology of every piece of the BlackBerry system. Jim Balsillie had the same level of expertise in winning over carriers and dealing with the business side of things (and outside the US you can call that as success).

As Nokia found, having your market share increase everywhere else in the world (as Symbian did in 2011) isn't much help if you tank in the US. Do all the right things too slowly and high sales won't save you once the market turns on you. How much that helps users and businesses get better technology in the long run is anybody's guess, but this is about the technology business, not just the technology.

Mary Branscombe

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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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  • It is so refreshing to see an article that doesn't keyword whore itself by throwing the words iphone and android everywhere.

    Keep it up :)
    imaginarynumber