PalmPilot, BlackBerry, iPhone: A history of conquerers

by Mike Maginnis

RIM, it seems, has developed a bit of iPhone envy ... maybe more than a bit. And who could blame them? Apple has revolutionized the consumer smartphone industry with its flashy iPhone and is enjoying record profits, increasing market share and glowing reviews from the fawning technorati. Other industry players have been quick to play catch-up, deploying many feel-alike features into their own offerings — and RIM, it seems, has finally begun to take notice.

It started with the release of the BlackBerry Storm in late 2008, RIM's half-baked entry into the touch screen market. When Apple proved it could effectively cultivate a strong, profitable application development ecology through its iron-grip control over the iPhone App Store, RIM (eventually) debuted App World. And now, several weeks after rumors of Apple's plans to include a front-facing camera in future iPhones began to surface, comes news that as early as next year, new BlackBerry models may include this feature. Details at this point are of course sketchy, and the "unnamed RIM executive" offered no proof that RIM intends to develop such a camera. A reluctance to provide more detail is not all that surprising in an industry where manufacturers prefer to spin buzzwords and pie-in-the-sky functionality to true spec sheets. I'm not concerned by what specific features will or won't be available on whichever devices. Yes, I'm as interested as the next smartphone geek to see how they choose to implement this feature. Will it come at the expense of the "rear-facing" camera? Will existing carrier networks be able to handle the inevitable tidal wave of video-conferencing bandwidth drain? Will AT&T even allow Apple to offer such a luxury? All of these questions and more will no doubt be answered in due time. (Personally, I'm thinking, what better way for Jobs to make his triumphant return to WWDC than with the announcement of this much-requested feature?)

No, my real concern here is for RIM and its apparent contentment to sit back and let Apple determine RIM's future course. A few years back — a lifetime in this industry — RIM found itself in the unique position as the de facto standard after Palm, for all intents and purposes, collapsed and disappeared from the market it pioneered. It didn't take the little company from Canada long to entrench itself in the lucrative business smartphone market, snapping up major contracts with players as big as the US government itself left and right. Satisfied to leave the consumer market to Nokia, Microsoft and the others, RIM quickly set itself on "cruise control" and has been coasting ever since. BlackBerry software updates — even major revisions — have included only incremental improvements and bug fixes (witness early OS 5.0 leaks, nearly identical to 4.7 and 4.6 and...). Other than the Storm, which RIM obviously had no idea what to do with, BlackBerries really haven't changed in a long, long time. You still get the same small screen above a physical keyboard in a cookie-cutter form factor with the new Tour that came with the first Curve models back in 2007.

And why not? For RIM, like Palm and Microsoft before them, there was no reason to innovate. They were in control of their own destiny. And even when Apple shook the industry to its core with the introduction of its first iPhone, there still wasn't much to worry about. Sure, Apple fanboys and starry-eyed New York Times technobloggers flocked to it — but that was just the "Cult of Mac" effect making itself visible in a new marketplace. The phone had numerous problems and bizarre shortcomings (no copy and paste!). So RIM, while taking perhaps a bit of momentary notice, has continued on its happy way, oblivious. Besides, Apple has never been able to make any real headway into RIM's core business, the enterprise smartphone.

As the consumer end of the spectrum has exploded and is reaching critical mass in the overall cell phone industry, RIM has finally awoken to find itself playing catch up to Apple. The Storm, and its botched OS updates, the very mediocre App World, and now this latest all point to a company that no longer understands the market it once dominated. Meanwhile, Apple has listened to its critics and customers, rolling out those magical, missing features and fixing bugs while adding processing power and improving the all-important "User Experience".

Which leads to the real question: how much longer can RIM sit back and follow Apple's lead and still expect to maintain market share? My guess? About a month after Apple ends AT&T's exclusivity deal and other carriers are able to offer true innovation to their customers.

Mike Maginnis lives in Colorado, where he works for the US Fish & Wildlife Service. He spends his spare time feeding his vintage computing and photography addictions, the former of which is evidenced by his Web site, The Computist Project.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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