By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 8:00 am
I don’t mean to be painfully Pollyannaish, but I’m almost glad that RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis didn’t announce any new products or other major news at the keynote during its DevCon conference in San Francisco, which I attended on Tuesday morning. A year ago, at the 2010 edition of the event, he unveiled the PlayBook tablet. I got all excited. When it finally shipped months later, it was tremendously disappointing.
This year, the upcoming products that matter for RIM are the first BlackBerry phones based on the company’s new QNX-based operating system–which Lazaridis did say will be called BBX, and which will presumably come out next year. If RIM had provided a sneak peak at them at DevCon, it wouldn’t have helped matters and might have hurt. All that really matters is that they’re great when they finally come out. Who cares how unfinished versions look in a controlled demo?
DevCon 2011, which continues today, has been mostly devoted to brass-tacks information aimed at people who write software for RIM devices. That’s fine; that’s what developer conferences are for. But I do wish that Lazaridis, or somebody, had laid out RIM’s vision as a company and as a maker of technology products. Instead, he began his keynote by briefly apologizing for last week’s outage and trumpeting some impressive-sounding sales stats. Then he dived right into technical stuff.
It’s pretty apparent what kind of devices Apple wants to make. I get what’s important to Google’s Android folks. Even though Microsoft’s Windows Phone isn’t catching on with consumers, the company has a strategy.
But RIM? I don’t have a clue about what it’s trying to do.
That wasn’t always the case: For years, it thrived in part because it had such clarity of vision. It wanted to build excellent phones centered around reliable e-mail and calendaring that delivered features that businesses cared about. It did. And then the world changed, and RIM failed to change with it.
I tried to piece together the things that Lazaridis and his colleagues and guests showed at the keynote to get a sense of what RIM cares about. The very first demos they did were of fancy 3D games for the PlayBook. There was some classically RIM-like businessy stuff, such as features designed to let a company prevent PlayBook users from cutting and pasting sensitive corporate data into personal e-mail. Lazaridis repeatedly said that QNX is the one way forward for BlackBerry developers–but an Adobe representative showed the PlayBook running AIR apps, and a segment was devoted to the tablet’s Android compatibility. Most of the keynote focused on the PlayBook, but I didn’t come away absolutely confident that RIM is committed to the device for the long term and won’t TouchPad it and return to being a phone-centric outfit.
It was all pretty jumbled. All I could tell was that RIM is afraid to commit to being anything in particular. It wants to do everything. Which isn’t working.
I winced in particular at the emphasis on fancy games. It seems obvious to me that nothing is more important to RIM’s fate than making excellent business devices. I’m not sure why any game enthusiast would choose a PlayBook over an iPad. But the fact that games led off the keynote may mean that RIM believes they’re key to its future of the company’s products.
Unlike many folks–the people I chatted with on Twitter about the keynote as it happened were amazingly cynical–I don’t think it’s dead certain that RIM’s goose is cooked. It’s possible that Lazaridis and co-CEO Balsillie have a strategy that they’re just not talking about yet. Perhaps they realize that the company’s recent history of stoking excitement for products isn’t nearly as important as making them great. They might be finishing up QNX BlackBerries that are so impressive that they don’t want to talk about them just yet for fear that they’ll kill the market for current models. I still believe that one exceptionally good new BlackBerry phone might change everything.
What I don’t understand is why RIM doesn’t seem to think it’s all that important whether anyone understands what it’s up to. In a conference call in June, Lazaridis said “RIM has taken a unique path and the reason why we do things might not always be obvious from the outside.” He’s right. But isn’t it vital that RIM customers, developers, and watchers understand what RIM is doing, and why? Wouldn’t DevCon be the perfect place to educate us? Wouldn’t it have been worth ten minutes at the start of the keynote? If you don’t bother to explain your strategy for making relevant products–or can’t do so–why should anyone believe you have one?