Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry, the smartphone category leader for most of the recent past seems in danger of going the way of Palm, who created the category, did. In recent weeks there has been a steady flow of negative news and commentary form the media, ranging form today’s piece on Bloomberg that said “more companies opting for rival devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone. Of 200 companies in the U.S. and U.K. surveyed, 74 percent now let their employees use devices other than BlackBerrys,” to news that various governments have raised questions about its security. On the surface it appears RIM is suffering from bad PR and government relations. My question is: Is this a marketing problem or a product problem?
It does appear that RIM has a significant PR challenge. Blackberry 6 has rolled out via a TV ad campaign but with little attention in the editorial side of the media. What attention it has got has tended to focus on this being “RIM’s last roll of the dice.” Of course RIM has also been berated for having a relatively weak product line up and for also having opted for a software application model that gave customers a few really good apps versus the thousands and thousands open to iPhone and Android users. It would thus appear to be a perfect storm. A weak product line up, a software strategy error and less than effective PR. In other words it’s not just a marketing problem.
Can marketing save RIM? I for one believe the BlackBerry brand could still do well. The iPhone, though beautiful, isn’t without its flaws: dropped calls, touch screen keyboard that can lead to horrendous typos, AT&T coverage in markets like San Francisco, the list goes on. The iPhone is also becoming a target for people who like to exploit security holes. I was recently told of a major investment bank that wanted to trial the iPhone for staff. To make it secure they had to disable the camera, iPod functionality and the ability to download apps. In other words it became a phone and email device. Given these are actually two of its weaker functions (see list of weaknesses above) that should make the BlackBerry a very good alternative. This is where marketing needs to step in and hammer the iPhone for all it’s worth. For people who like to email or text message the BlackBerry s still the best device going. But they need to do more than that. RIM needs to get aggressive and invest in a real content and applications model that people see as a real alternative to iTunes. This could easily be done via a comprehensive agreement with Amazon (who also has an interest in unseating Apple). Now of course we hear that RIM is readying an iPad rival. This makes it a rival to Amazon also given the Kindle. Bad, bad idea in my mind. I think there is far more to be gained by having Amazon on its side than having them as a rival. Amazon, after all, offers the only real alternative to Apple’s content strategy.
I could go on and on about how RIM needs to ‘re-win’ the smartphone battle and how this requires them to win over both consumers AND the IT community. It’s achievable with some well executed PR provided they also look at their content/application strategy AND roll out a product line that rethinks their current look. RIM is where the American carmakers were when the Japanese arrived. They were focused on the wrong things and just couldn’t see how tastes had changed. It’s going to be a tough battle for RIM but as of today they have the resources to win if they are willing to take some bold steps and admit some of their mistakes.