Comparing Apples To BlackBerrys

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Research In Motion had a tough week last week.

That’s an understatement, and I’m not just talking about a stock drop of more than 20 per cent. The underestimation is when financial pundits talk about RIM’s issues as if they only happened last week. It wasn’t last week . this has been going on for years. Many think RIM is faltering because they aren’t innovating like Apple or Google (Android is a Google initiative). This isn’t the case, either. RIM is not a company of innovation. RIM is a technology company that has evolved (quickly) from an entrepreneurial startup into a global business, and those two entities are diametrically opposed. Comparing Apple to RIM is like comparing Jay-Z to The Beatles. Both serve a purpose to the music industry and legion of fans, but they could not be farther apart when looking at the core of who they are and what they stand for.

You can argue that one is better than the other, but the point is that both are successful in executing on their own vision and artistry.

RIM founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie had a vision when they launched BlackBerry in the 1990s – a device that would enable anyone to access their email from anywhere and everywhere. Email in the palm of your hand was a bold vision statement in a world that was just getting acclimatized to mobile phones and pagers (remember when people would be frowned upon for using their mobile phones in a restaurant or while on public transit?). At RIM’s inception, they were entrepreneurs: people who had a vision for the future. A vision very few others could see, feel or understand. A vision that saw these technology professionals invest their own money, blood, sweat and tears. It paid off… and they were right. Professionals (and now, even casual consumers) did want to access their email in a mobile fashion.

The transition from entrepreneur to business professional is where the friction lies.

While entrepreneurs have a vision for the future, most business professionals have two main focuses: to mitigate risk and minimize mistakes. A business without a culture of entrepreneurship will struggle to evolve – especially if they are in an industry that not only relies on entrepreneurship, but is also driven by – and demands – innovation. Is it a crime against humanity if RIM’s only success is the invention of the BlackBerry and mobile email? Hardly. Is it RIM’s fault for not picking up on the evolution of the mobile Web, the app economy or our new-found love of tablets? It’s only their fault if they were pursuing greatness in those domains – as a core competency.

Apple’s Steve Jobs is a unique individual. So too are Larry Page and Sergey Brin from Google.

These individuals have managed to do something truly unique in business culture, which is to blend their entrepreneurship and early-stage, startup-risk taking within the context of a global business that isn’t constantly attempting to mitigate risk and minimize mistakes. Many people didn’t think Apple (a computer manufacturer) could never successfully produce and market a smartphone and those same people probably questioned a search engine’s ability to create a mobile platform like Android. Is it ironic those same people are wondering why BlackBerry hasn’t evolved beyond email?

The trick with innovation lies within it’s own definition.

You have to be able to innovate: To do something that your competitors have not yet done. PlayBook‘s lack of success (RIM says that only 500,000 tablets are in market) compared with the iPad is indicative of this. The PlayBook was announced long after iPad’s initial in-market success and prior to the launch of iPad 2. By the time the iPad 2 had come to market (which, in and of itself, was a technical innovation over the first one), RIM’s PlayBook launch was still unconfirmed. In the end, PlayBook, was a "me too" product instead of an innovation (and one that was somewhat comparable in terms of technical specification to the first generation iPad).

I’m no RIM hater.

Prior to switching over to an iPhone last Christmas, I had been using a BlackBerry loyally since their initial launch. Why the switch? Slowly – over time – my mobile needs evolved from email and phone to a more holistic Web experience. Beyond that, as a digital marketing professional, I don’t think we’ll see an Internet experience that is both big screen and mobile-based… there will simply be a connected consumer and mobile will be the primary gateway (this was further validated when IDC announced that there were more smartphones than PCs sold in the last quarter of last year). If RIM can’t innovate with new devices and applications toward that end, we (consumers, business professionals and investors) must be confident in their success as an enterprise email platform. RIM can innovate in this space (they’re proven). Now, whether or not they can compete and innovate against companies such as Apple or Google? Only time – and a massive culture shift – will tell.

In the end, RIM‘s Achilles Heel is not marketing or technology… it’s innovation.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. Lol, if you think apple is innovative? You’re out to lunch and really don’t understand the industry they’re in.
    If you think RIM isn’t innovative, you need to look up the definition of innovation.
    “To introduce something new or to make changes to something established.”
    RIM is a innovation trailblazer. A pioneer.
    Apple takes what is successful, doesn’t change it, but markets it as something new and innovative that has lots of eye candy. They just find these already developed ideas, figure out how to make the fattest margins out of them and markets it to all their fanboys who’re willing to pay a premium for their wholesaled china hardware.

  2. “max”, your comment makes no sense.
    Mitch indicates that RIM was highly innovative in creating the platform but they changed from an innovation/entrepreneurial enterprise into a global business that has not had a track record of innovation beyond their initial email solution. And, he’s right.
    As for Apple, you don’t make a compelling argument at all. In fact, you come off as an Apple hater rather than looking at how the iPad, iTunes, etc… were clearly innovative. But, the bigger concept (and the one that I think Mitch was trying to bring across in this Blog post) is that Apple does continue to introduce new products and services and acts as a highly innovative company (from the consumer’s perspective), while RIM seems to be resting on its laurels or manufacturing copycat types of products and services.

  3. I hope the comments don’t devolve into an “apple vs. blackberry” or “blackberry vs. google” debate. That was not the point or intent.
    The greater issue is the business model and the corporate culture along with the mass media demands for one company to try and act like another.

  4. Without making this a RIM versus anyone, I too want to be a loyal Canadian but not at the expense of having a mobile device that serves my needs. RIM’s innovation and success was the email encryption and therefore they became the ‘darling’ of the corporate world.
    The challenge has been that individuals want to be cool, leading edge, have more app access etc etc and Jobs and Page/Brin realised and acted and so individuals are driving the demand and forcing their employers to consider Apple and Android and they are starting to win the argument. Without that advantage and its reluctance in the past to open up to developers RIM is now chasing the rest, hence the me too tactics.
    The corporate culture of all the players has in part dictated their brand and who they then attract as brand evangelists, the challenge is RIM risks becoming the forgotten brand or at the very least the left behind one, making it a much less appealing brand to new users and one that earlier users do not want to be associated with anymore, perpetuating its demise versus its revival – time will tell.
    Just my toonies worth

  5. One of the core ideas here is that innovation isn’t always where we (the consumers) expect it to be.
    We stand RIM up against Apple (or Google) and evaluate their contribution (perhaps even evaluate their company) against each other. Mitch’s point, I think, is that that comparison is a false one. RIM doesn’t have to out compete Apple (or Google) on their turf because there is a huge opportunity at the core of their business: enterprise email (esp. in Canada).
    Being innovative doesn’t mean forcing yourself into a competition with market leaders when you are likely to lose, it means making the most of markets you can win in, or better yet, creating them.

  6. the actual issue with RIM is neither innovation nor business model, but rather marketing and design. Blackberry’s marketing was left to the carriers, creating a hodge podge of messages in the marketing about what they stand for. They have created a second rate consumer experience based on functionality, not beauty or elegance, which ultimately has been left in the dust by Apple’s far superior user interface. And they’ve failed to truly understand the entire ecosystem that has been created by Apple and Google, which solves so many of our problems with technology and ultimately vast swaths of our daily lives, via the apps we use for various functions in our lives.
    Jim Balsillie as CMO? what a joke. the LOVE campaign? Another joke. The fundamental premise of blackberry is not LOVE, but rather practicality. I don’t LOVE my blackberry – I can’t function without it. That’s the premise they should have taken – and I thought that’s where they were going with the launch of the playbook with the tag line “amateur hour is over”. But then they follow it up with games and TV? confusing, and amateurish, with a complete lack of understanding of their consumer.
    They are in deep trouble, but with $3bn and no debt, they can buy enough time to figure it out – so long as they don’t keep running it like an engineering company.
    Oops. too bad about that, they still are.

  7. Nice blog – I tend to be pro-apple person, but have to give RIM it’s kudos on some aspects of technology (like BBM). I’d like to also think that top-level attitude is starting to make an impact. As much as Steve Jobs might be a demanding perfectionist (like that can be a bad thing) he keeps pretty much all of it inside of Apple. Jim Balsillie on the other hand has spent a ton of time being a big mouth – from trying to muscle ownership of an NHL team to trashing aspects of the iPad when that was first introduced. So, Joel, as much as innovation is large part of the ‘bad week’ that RIM had, I think that other factors do play a role.

  8. It is interesting when you look at the market place now compared to when the blackberry was first introduced. The culture shift in technology has been drastic and more demanding. Blackberry was once the main smart phone, the phone made for the business world. Slowly the iphone and other smart phones are taking away their market.
    It makes me wonder what will be the next big thing in 20 years or so?
    Who will be the next generations game changer?

  9. Nice point, Nick. RIM’s error was in trying to land on the beach most crowded with defenses. Stick to core competencies and strong niches. The Playbook did neither. Also, to call Apple innovative is to completely ignore the company’s history. From Jobs’ fateful trip onwards, they have taken others’ ideas, expanded on them smartly and executed brilliantly. Google has followed in their footsteps. Innovative, not so much. Profitable… do the math.

  10. The Blackberry was great for accessing email in a corporate environment with the Blackberry Exchange Server. That’s no longer where I am. Like you, “my mobile needs evolved from email and phone to a more holistic Web experience”. That’s not where RIM is strong.
    PS I still have my Blackberry … for now

  11. Here’s an interesting perspective on Apple and innovation.
    In today’s Globe and Mail, Simon Houpt reports from the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival where author Malcolm Gladwell “expanded on a recent piece he had written for The New Yorker magazine about a paradox of innovation: namely, that while the business community and the wider culture laud those who do something first, it is often those who come later that are most successful.”
    “If you look at the history of Apple, they’re always the last to the party,†said Mr. Gladwell. “They’ve made a business out of being late.†Steve Jobs, he added, “is the archetypal entrepreneur of our age, right? And he is not an innovator, right? He’s the
    guy who comes second or third and makes it better.â€

  12. I am struck by your comment that “I don’t think we’ll see an Internet experience that is both big screen and mobile-based… there will simply be a connected consumer and mobile will be the primary gateway.”
    This is a huge statement. And I think you are right. Mobile is becoming the critical connection point to consumers and companies need to wake up and figure out how to take advantage of that.

  13. I, like you, had been a loyal blackberry user for roughly 5 years. I went all the way from the blackberries with the sidescroll all the way through the blackberry torch.
    I now use an Iphone4. I could not be happier. The web browsing is light years ahead, the phone doesn’t lag when pushing a button. If blackberry doesn’t step their game up, quickly, they will be the worst smart phones available.
    just my two cents 🙂 ….

  14. You’re absolutely right, we tend to compare all tech companies against Apple, Google, and Amazon. Which is just silly, because the market doesn’t need another one of any of these companies. RIM has done a good job of sticking to their core position that has made them great, but hasn’t innovated well in that particular space. But it’s not too late.

  15. Mitch – agreed – innovation and market knowledge is key.
    Bottom line – RIM technology is old and tired – it was great number of years back – I was in love with my Blackberry for years – battery life was awesome, keyboard was superb, durability was like a rock (I dropped them way too many times all over the world and these things were solid) and YES there was innovation. The problem is that they have done NOTHING new for may years. They sucked the life out of the Blackberry devices as large enterprises gave them away to their employees to work 24/7. Recently RIM has been throwing cash at the problem of their platform that sucks – hiring every donkey they can find and – most of their recent hires would not get jobs at too many places but somehow they ended up getting added to some random project at RIM – so sad.
    Developing for RIM sucks – many folks have pointed that out over time – it is alot easier for a developer to download and work with iOS or Android – developing on RIM is like it was 8-10 years ago – painful. Top that with lack of exposure for developers to sell their stuff – and the interest is tanking like their stock.
    RIM will go the same way as NOKIA – by having their heads in the sand for years, not paying attention to the market, not innovating next generation products and holding onto their tired technology are some of the nails in their coffin.
    Solution for RIM:
    1. Remove 1/2 of the work force – before you end up holding an empty bag like Nortel – that will buy you some time
    2. Reduce the execs – do you really need 2 CEO’s and 3 COO’s? WTF?
    3. Hire some cracker jacks from US – Canadians are great but lately not exactly the horses I would bet on
    4. Dump the Playbook – roll over and apologize for that F*ck up
    5. Put on an innovation hat and crank out a next gen Blackberry phone!
    6. Take the current BB models and give them away to kids, students, 3rd world countries – with cheap plans – you will get a cool following of next generation onto your pretty decent devices
    7. Invest in 50-100 startups that can give you some leverage in your battle – do not attempt to do everything on your own!
    8. Add some freaking URGENCY to your government like internal processes – the morale inside is brutal based on what my friends describe – time to kick some things up!
    Onwards and upwards
    BTW – everyone I know is switching to Apple, Android is not here yet – Mac’s, iPhones, iPads etc. are flooding the user base – just look around an electronics store where the shortages are and where the customers go to look at stuff – easy to figure out!
    Have a great day!

  16. Your paragraph of the issues of being a start up innovative entrepreneur and then a risk averse business professional was such an ah ha!! moment for me. Thank you. You read so many books and follow great minds and try to apply your own ideas and demons to your trade and I have found that I can co-exist with the start-up innovators, but fail completely at working with the risk averse business professionals!
    Leading and risking all and talking a new message is very worthy, but making a go of it when most of the world (and your clients) are still old world “business professionals” that have fogetten that exciting spark of risk, is the challenge. I can leave the dinosars behind, but they just happen to be my colleagues and clients and most of the businesses I buy from.
    p.s. I have the BB Torch, and it rocks!! Their apps and support is not that great, but wow I love it as a business tool, and the social media apps are more than enough.
    If I want games for my kids, then they borrow my wife’s iPhone. I hope there is enough room in this world for RIM and Apple and Samsung and Sony – can’t believe it took Sony this long to come out with their new PS phone…looks pretty cool!!

  17. We all have passionate opinions on our brands, but imagine for a second being handed to keys to the top job at either of RIM or Apple? You would be told that hundreds of thousands of customers love you, hate you, would kill for you or would kill you if you changed anything or didn’t change something. How would you pick a mission or a customer to please or a strategy to stay true to? Being a global supplier that is also at the cutting edge as a consumer brand has got to be one hell of a challenge…one false step and there is no safety net…what a rush & what talented people!!

  18. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The first person to do it well and execute it well has the real bragging rights. Not the first arm chair idea man that came up with it Because Everyone out there already had this idea. But who shipped and released it first (And Succeeded)? That is what matters and nothing else.
    The iPad was no different than the Star Trek “PADD” (Personal Access Display Device)
    But Apple made the first real non-fictional kind.
    heck I go so far as whoever invents the first teleporter is the real innovator.

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