What Would RIM Do?

Blinding Partisanship

I remember a time in the early 90’s where it was fashionable, at least here, to wear jeans with a Loonie Tunes character, usually “Taz” or “Tweety”, decal ironed on to the thigh. It has become fashionable among Apple aficionados to bash RIM and their entry into the tablet market — the BlackBerry PlayBook. You expect me to say now that they’re equally short-sighted and awful and I’d really like to but, truthfully, the “Taz” decal beats out the PlayBook bashing by a hair. You’d wear the jeans in public after all.

It seems to me that most of the animosity towards the PlayBook is less to do with what it is and more to do with how it is not what Apple would do. This is understandable coming from the pro-Apple crowd I tend to follow but I find the tenor disturbing. I’m left with the feeling that the criticism is driven more from reaction to foreign ideas than it is to the decisions being made by RIM. It seems to me that this is the kind of thinking that’d have corporate CTOs dismiss Apple’s strategies back in the day. It once was all about the enterprise but now, because of Apple, it’s suddenly about making consumer devices? Possibly, but let’s not preclude the possibility that there’s more than one approach that works.

Research In Motion

Do not underestimate Research In Motion. This is the company that beat Microsoft, at the height of it’s power, in the enterprise market. Before the iPhone was introduced, and even for some time afterwards, BlackBerry was synonymous with Smart Phone for a good reason. Their hard core users swear by the BlackBerry. They have enterprise sys-admins that swear by their Exchange support and who are very happy with their way of doing things. RIM, a Canadian company, is trusted to route the BBMs of the President of the United States. Dismissing RIM as yesterday’s news would be a mistake. They’ve proven themselves to be smart and I believe they’re still being smart – albeit they’re now working from a disadvantaged position after having been caught flat-footed by iPhone and iPad.

Let’s look at RIM as if they were Apple. In some ways their situations are comparable. iOS is to RIM as Windows 95 was to Apple. What did Apple do? Implode. For years. Then, eventually, they bought out a company with a great operating system and, more importantly for them, they brought back Steve Jobs. Why was Jobs important to Apple? Because he had the ability to change the direction of the organization and start rebuilding for the future. What did RIM do? They held their shit together, bought out a company with a great OS (particularly so in the embedded space) and brought on board some strong partners to help them rebuild towards the future. To me the difference seems to be that Apple almost drove itself into the ground before getting saved by Steve (or by NeXT really) while RIM has taken stock of the new reality on it’s own and is working towards correcting itself. Now, sure, a well loved company nearly killing itself only to be saved by the founder it’d kicked out and as a bonus the Old Hated Enemy shows up on a giant video screen and invests $150 million dollars. That’s nerd-corporate-entertainment writ large. But, come on, should that have actually happened? No. It was dumb. What should have happened is what’s happening at RIM right now. RIM management is reacting to a strategic zig-zag they hadn’t anticipated and they’re handling it both boldly and sensibly.

RIM & The Options

As I see it RIM has three options but only two of them have any hope of helping them retain relevance in the “smart device” market. They can keep doing what they’re doing and ignore the obvious sea-change. They can adopt Android and become a commodity player banking on their ability to integrate BBM and some backend mojo to get an edge on other Android-based competitors or they can chart their own course with their own software and hardware combination.

Right. RIM has picked the option that you, as an Apple aficionado, would say that you’d pick but, odds are, you’d probably just cave and ship an Android based device.

What’s Happening

Realizing they’ve been out flanked on the user interaction front RIM is out to solidify its market position. I doubt that internally these guys expect their PlayBook to be an “iPad killer” in the commercial sense. I believe the goals of the PlayBook are as follows. Primarily RIM needs to stay relevant in the eyes of the market and their investors. Without relevance the company will wither and die. The flip side to that is that RIM needs to remain relevant technologically. They need a strong next generation mobile operating system and a good user interaction toolkit they can build apps on. More than that they need experienced people who’ve gone a few rounds with these kinds of products. People like that don’t walk in off the street for your recruiting drive even if you do have Tim Hortons cater it. They need to grow these teams internally. And don’t think for a second that Apple just kicked out a fully formed iPhone OS in the first round either. If you ever looked at the original 1.0 APIs you know how much work went into that 2.0 release. RIM needs to buy themselves a bit of time to rev their engine and get back in the race. PlayBook is it.

A lot of commenters have called out RIM for engaging in vapourware marketing of the PlayBook. Undoubtedly the PlayBook is vapourware now. That said I’m unconvinced that the refrain of “shut-up-until-you-ship” is really what’d be best for RIM. They don’t operate in the same world that Apple does. A surprise product announcement isn’t fun for the IT crowd that makes up most RIM business. And, yes, they’re calling the PlayBook a consumer device but that’s not the point. The point is to remain relevant while the company shifts up – and it’s important to realize who they need to remain relevant with. It’s not the App Store developers who are unlikely to ever really support RIM as a primary platform anyway. RIM wants to remain relevant to the corporate techies and CTOs and the fan-base they’ve cultivated. If that means sticking an amateurish video of their vapourware device shaming a current generation iPad then so be it. I’ll bet there’s an audience out there that just really ate that up.

Most companies move slowly and deliberately on technology. RIM is a major player in the corporate technology world. They know their audience. By doing the vapourware chant they’re remaining at the forefront of the minds of the people who are responsible for their big purchasing orders. Are you a CTO thinking of iPads? Well, here’s RIM showing stuff off that’ll be out around the next time your budget gets refreshed and, you know, it looks pretty hot and can play Flash stuff. Splash isn’t always the answer for every company. It’s more fun, certainly, and it really works when people actually care about what you’re announcing. But if you’re a company that lets yourself go from hero to zero over the two years it takes you to catch up and change your game plan and then you release your surprise-killer product? Who’d care? Really. Let’s talk Apple again – if Apple hadn’t staggered along spitting out flower-power and Dalmatian iMacs until OS X was ready and the iPod got shipped would the market have cared at all about either? I doubt it. It’s not as simple as vanishing from the stage and coming back with a big hit. That’s especially true in the market that RIM operates in.

The Technology Case

Let’s forget the hardware component because that’ll change up by next year or even by the time this thing ships. Let’s look at the software stack – that’s probably more indicative of the long term investment involved in the product. PlayBook runs a “brand-new” OS that is based on QNX, a real-time microkernel originally designed specifically for the x86 but has since expanded to support a number of architectures.

If you’re a hard-core software nerd then you’ve heard of QNX before and what you’ve heard has been positive. If you’re not – QNX is the microkernel success story. Even more so than Mach, QNX does the message passing thing well. That means that device drivers don’t run in kernel space – they’re in user space and if one crashes, well, that sucks, but it can be restarted and you can keep using that device. QNX in a very robust operating system and it is designed to be real-time. That doesn’t mean that everything happens instantly, it means that everything happens in a deterministic period of time. The promise isn’t, “I’ll get this done and get back to you” the promise is, “I’ll get this done within this amount of time and I’ll let you know how that goes”. It is highly fault tolerant and highly deterministic. It has already been embedded in innumerable devices including a guitar pedal.

Years ago QNX included a GUI called Photon. Photon was no fun. It worked, it was decently good looking for its time and it wasn’t X11 so that was nice. If you were writing control systems for a paper-mill then it was a pretty decent, reliable, sensible choice. Photon won’t be on the PlayBook. Photon was a sometimes necessary layer to sell the underlying jewel of QNX proper.

So, what will be the application layer interface for PlayBook apps? There’s two right now. The Web and Adobe Flash / AIR.

Scoff at Flash or AIR all you’d like but it’s a brilliant move by RIM. Not that I believe it’s the best solution possible, rather that I believe it is the best solution available to them given the time and monetary constraints they operate under. By selecting Flash / AIR as their primary platform target RIM has been clever in a couple of ways. The obvious one is that third party developers will be familiar with what they’re targeting. They’ll know the classes, methods, functions and tool chain involved in creating an AIR application and all of that will apply to building a PlayBook app. The less obvious benefit to adopting Flash / AIR is that if you’ve committed to it being a primary application layer and you control the operating system and driver stack then you’re in a very good position to make your implementation the best possible. If you think of Apple basing Quartz off PDF back in 2000 then RIM basing itself on Flash in 2010 doesn’t seem so crazy. You just laughed – but I don’t mean Flash as the thing itself, I mean Flash as the idea of arbitrary objects with arbitrary key-framed paths keyed to interact with an interpreted code layer. Think of Flash, at the core, as being a CoreAnimation style model and that RIM is building that sort of thing directly into their OS and driver model.

Do I think it’ll beat Apple and the iOS team? No. I think there’ll still be enough baggage dragged over that it won’t be a perfect foundation. I do, however, believe it’ll be a reasonable foundation and provide good footing for RIM as they try to shift over to addressing the new market reality that Apple has opened.

What Should Happen

If you asked me to place a bet on any one Android based company and RIM I’d bet on RIM. The thing is Android is this amorphous, ill-defined thing backed by the immensely powerful Google. That said, RIM is doing their own thing and they’re doing it smart. They’ve got their own solid OS base and they’re building out a familiar UI layer that they’ll be in a better position to support than anyone else. They’re interesting, they’re smart and they’ve got balls. They’re not Apple and so how they approach things won’t be familiar to Apple followers but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed out of hand. I believe they’ll field a strong, independent and unique software and hardware combination. If they execute as well as I expect the PlayBook will be a good device.

What Will Happen

I think the PlayBook will be a solid device if not a solid competitor for iPad. RIM will be out-marketed, out-maneuvered, out-mindshared and, really, out-engineered by Apple. If the RIM device is good enough it’ll find a place within the market they’ve got cornered now and the company will eventually start moving into other fields — ceding the smart phone and tablet market to Apple. RIM needs to remain relevant as they figure out which niche they’re going to dominate. If they’re being honest with themselves they’ll know there’s a hobby position between iOS and Android that they can fill. Maybe over the next five years they can earn decreasing returns on that portion of the market. My guess is that they’re trying to figure out where to go next. Despite the shit-talking I doubt they’re going to bet the whole thing on a frontal assault against Apple under Steve Jobs.

The PlayBook will ship and it will be well implemented for what it is. It won’t beat out iOS or iPads though it will probably do other things better. Ultimately, this device isn’t as important to RIM as what it means for the future of the company. They’re talking up vapour now because that’s all they’ve got but the moves they’ve made so far have been smart and I think they’ll keep being smart.

What Would You Do?

Your company has sat on a dominant position for years and years. Your brand-name is synonymous with its category. You’ve been making evolutionary changes to your product and growing the business year over year. Then things change. Famously Microsoft missed the “Internet Revolution” by not having a “Web Browser” ready. Apple under Jobs made a similar mistake by not picking up on digital music for a couple of years. Both of these companies bounced back to be key players in the areas they’d initially been blind sided by. Will RIM manage a turn around like these? I doubt it. But what should they be doing that they’re not doing? It seems to me they’re making smart decisions while maintaing control over their own destiny. What more could be done? What would you do in their position?

Fortunes ebb and flow and while it’s best to not be caught flat-footed it happens to everyone eventually. I’m unconvinced that RIM is handling their position poorly — in fact I believe they’re making choices that will serve them well in the future.

This talk of vapourware and slight of hand — what were Mac OS 8, Mac OS 9 and the varied and crude pre-OS X iMacs? A good company needs to bridge between what was and what they’re going to be. I see RIM as doing that now.