Is RIM losing its edge?

There was a time, around three years ago, if you wanted to takeway my Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry from me, you would have had to pry it from my dead hands, or, as reality would have it, shut down my service.   I know many other people who felt and still feel the same way.

There was a time, around three years ago, if you wanted to takeway my Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry from me, you would have had to pry it from my dead hands, or, as reality would have it, shut down my service.   I know many other people who felt and still feel the same way.  Today, I'm not a BlackBerry user.  But that wasn't by choice.  Somewhere around two years ago, my company shut down its BlackBerry Enteprise Server (BES) -- the server-side software that replicates e-mail from an Exchange Server to wireless BlackBerries "in the field."  They turned it in for a product called GoodLink from Good Technology, Inc. that, at the time, essentially did the same thing as BES, but that gave end-users a lot of choices in terms of what handhelds they could replicate their e-mail to.  Ironically, the list of compatible devices included some BlackBerries at the time. 

Like the way Microsoft licenses its operating system to multiple PC manufacturers, it's a good model (no pun intended) since it doesn't tie end users to any specific handheld.  Over the years, RIM has become much more serious about giving its customers that same flexibility.  Its solution is now available for some of the same devices that Good's is. 

But, if you've been watching from the sidelines as I've been, the improved parity between the two companies' device-independent client software comes across as being mostly a reactionary move on RIM's behalf. I would argue that it is one of many signs that RIM is losing its edge.  One reason is that -- to the extent that RIM keeps coming out with new BlackBerries while also offering its software for other devices as well -- the company is neither fish nor fowl.  This would be akin to Microsoft making its own computers at the same time it licenses Windows to Lenovo, HP, Dell, and other PC manufacturers (or to Apple deciding to license its operating systems while continuing to build its own systems).  This dual personality must make it difficult to figure out which master to serve.  In the end, Good, which used to have its own hardware but ditched it for a pure software model, probably has the right idea.  Then again, RIM's BlackBerries were just so gosh darn innovative that we almost need the company to keep pushing the handheld envelope just to keep competing mobile hardware and software vendors on their toes.

Or do we? There may be other evidence that RIM is losing its edge.  When I think of why it was that RIM's BlackBerries were so disruptive to the mobile messaging market, four things (in combination) come to mind: the thumbboard, the thumbwheel, one apsect of the operating system, and the battery life.   Regardless of whether NTP has a patent to the technology used by RIM (NTP has sued RIM and tomorrow -- Nov 9, 2005 -- could be final judgement day for the Canadian company), it was RIM who first whipped up a concoction of the four that wowed the digerati.  With its thumbboard, RIM's BlackBerries proved that stylus-based handwriting recognition -- popularized by Palm's implementation of Grafitti -- has no legs in the mobile market.  Go to any trade show where mobile devices are being shown off and you'll see that the number of devices that now have some sort of keyboard greatly outnumbers those that do not.

The other usability issue that RIM perfected was single handed operation.  It's one thing to replace the stylus with a thumbboard for input of text. As today's thumbboard-graced Windows Mobile 2003-based devices prove (where the keyboard is more of an afterthought), it's another to be able to throw out the stylus altogether so that it only takes a single hand to do much of what you would do with a handheld (including making telephone calls). 

RIM's ingenious integration of a thumbwheel and an escape button  (found on the side of all BlackBerries) into its applications was a big facilitator of that usability.  Regardless of where you are in one of the BlackBerry's applications (ie: email, or the telephone if it's a converged device), depression of the thumbwheel either brings up a context sensitive menu or selects an option from a menu that's already displayed.  When a menu is not being displayed, the wheel motion of the thumbwheel becomes a scroll wheel. 

No matter where you are in a Blackberry -- you could be two levels deep into the wrong menus or you could be on the wrong application -- the escape button digs you out, back to square one for a fresh start -- all with one hand.   Today, on my Windows Mobile 2003-based AudioVox XV6600 smartphone, there is no equivalent.  All too often, to get something done, I have to tap the display with my finger or a stylus.  In my book, the minute one operation requires two hands, a handheld has failed the ultimate test of usability

To top it all off, RIM then did something really special -- it punctuated these innovations with an amazingly reduced appetite for power even though the device was constantly sending and receiving e-mails.  Before RIM introduced its first BlackBerry phones, some of the BlackBerries I had would go for days on a single charge (never once missing an email).  Even when phone functionality was added to the formula, the BlackBerries do quite well.  In contrast, my XV6600 smartphone sucks power faster than an anteater can get termites out of a clay mound. (It would do better if only Good Technology, whose software I'm running, wouldn't override a preference I've set to keep the display's backlight off until I tell it otherwise.) 

When its BlackBerries came out, and then later when BlackBerry phones hit the market, RIM really understood the constraints it was dealing with and knew where not to push too hard in a way that made the device impractical.  By comparison, some of the first devices based on Microsoft's PocketPC operating system (devices that didn't even have a wireless radio of any sort in them) gave us a glimpse of what the future might be like, if only those constraints didn't exist.  For example, after eating though batteries in a matter of hours, they did users the additional favor of losing all their data.  Whereas RIM was living within the rules of physics (in terms of what something in such a small form factor could really accomplish), Microsoft and its OEMs like HP with its WiFi and fingerprint reader-enabled iPaqs were clearly living beyond their means. 


Setting that first bar for usability in a handheld the way RIM did has proven to be a tough act to follow.  When I look at how the company has added phone functionality, squeezed a new clever thumbboard into its candy-bar shaped 7100 series of devices (a thumbboard that I hate, by the way), added color to its devices (the first BlackBerries were a battery-respectful black and white), and now, incorporated a more powerful Intel processor and EDGE wireless broadband connectivity  (in its new 8700c device, pictured left), I see some neat incremental improvements, but nothing that will help RIM to maintain the edge it established when its BlackBerries first arrived.  This is particularly so since, a lot of what set RIM apart from its competitors is ground that those competitors -- such as Palm (with its Treos) and Motorola (with its Windows Mobile 5.0-based Q) -- have covered, or will soon be covering.  The Q, for example, has a thumbwheel and a thumbboard.  Are they better integrated into Windows Mobile 5.0 than previous attempts to strap such hardware onto Windows Mobile 2003 was?  I'm waiting to find out, but I'd be willing to bet that things have improved.  Even worse for RIM -- whereas some of the competing devices may have overstepped the boundaries of physics before -- the physics are catching up.  The result?  RIM's devices may need to do a bit of catching up themselves. 

One example on the convergence front is in the mobilization of audio and video.  For example, in addition to being messaging devices and telephones, even today's Windows Mobile 2003-based smartphones like my XV6600 do an impressive job of playing back both audio and video for their size.  In terms of hosting that content, memory has come a long way in terms of both miniaturization and cost making convergence of content playback with existing Blackberry technology even more plausible.  Why is this important? When you consider how many people are carrying either a phone or a smartphone, a portable digital audio player (like an iPod), and maybe a PDA, it's quite possible that they'd rather have just one device that can do it all rather than needing a fortified backback or a telephone lineman's utility belt to tote all those devices around.  Yet the 8700c, which I'm looking forward to testing, only comes with 64mb of memory. 

Technically speaking, DRM-cartel issues aside, the Motorola Rockr (aka "the iTunes phone") with its limited capacity for only 100 songs (256 MB), screwed up on that front too.  But, in the name of convergence, it's the right idea-- which is why, with my XV6600, I've slipped a 1GB memory card into its SD slot to stretch its 128 MB of limited built in memory (hey, it's still double that of 8700c).  Not only can I take a decent collection of music, video, and pictures of my kids everywhere I go (yeah, ditch the billfold too), but by using innovative podcatching software like Skookum that takes advantage of the smartphone's connection to the Internet, I can load podcasts (which now include a wide array of commercial television and radio broadcasts that I wouldn't mind taking with me) onto my XV6600 without needing my PC to fetch them.  I haven't yet tested Skookum, but software like this will be commonplace in a couple of years.

In addition to convergence, there's another area where BlackBerry's competitors have zipped right by it.  In the It slices, it dices, it makes julienne potatoes department, many competitors to the existing lineup of BlackBerries can also be used as wireless broadband modems for notebook computers.  Some, like my XV6600, make this wirelessly possible with Bluetooth.  And although it was quite painful to get it working, the point is I can do it.  Meanwhile,  a bunch of RIM's BlackBerries have Bluetooth radios in them, but none (to the best of my knowledge) can be used as wireless broadband modems. Notebooks therefore cannot take advantage of whatever 3G network they're connected to.  The Bluetooth radio does, however, support hands free headgear.

Are the RIM devices living within their means?  More than likely yes.  Is the competition pushing the envelope on what's physically possible? That's a yes, too.  My battery, which already doesn't last me the day, lasts even less when I'm playing back video, viewing pictures, listening to audio, and making a bunch of phone calls.  But  the bottom line is that I'd rather carry an extra battery or two with me than wear a utility belt. 

Next week, I'll be meeting with RIM officials for on update on what the company is up to.  I'm sure this blog will be a subject of the discussion.  If you have questions for RIM, drop them into the comments section below and I'm sure RIM will come to next week's meeting prepared with the answers.  Meanwhile, is RIM losing it's edge?  What do you think?