Listen to much of the chatter about Research in Motion today and you'll hear the launch of BlackBerry 10 described in almost apocalyptic terms. All-or-nothing. Live-or-die. Make-or-break. There's some truth to the extreme language, but BlackBerry 10 is really just the latest in a series of transformational moments for a company that has frequently had to adapt to survive. In that sense, the appreciation for crises and opportunities is almost as natural as breathing for RIM. What's less certain is whether or not the company in 2013 is as capable of wholesale shifts in strategy as it was for much of its not quite 30-year history. Read on to see why reform is possible, but won't be quite so easy.
For its first two decades, RIM often showed the traits of a scrappy startup. It had nothing to lose and was willing to turn its business model on a dime to stay afloat. More importantly, it also had a simple, overriding determination to spread wireless data to the masses, no matter how that would come to pass. That gave it a leg up over contemporary technology stalwarts like Apple, Microsoft and Palm, all of whom were at least slightly behind RIM in seeing the value of truly instant mobile communication. CEO Mike Lazaridis (and eventual co-CEO Jim Balsillie) would see a void in the market, whether it was two-way paging or mobile email, and switch strategies to fill it.
The company spent more time trying to justify its existing smartphone philosophy and less time getting ahead of trends.
As the 2000s wore on, however, RIM slowed down. Much of the decade revolved around entrenching what we know as the core BlackBerry business model, where messaging-focused smartphones ship to large-scale customers. The company acknowledged the consumer world as early as 2003, but its approach was increasingly reactionary. We wouldn't have had the BlackBerry Storm without the iPhone popularizing touchscreens first, for example. The company spent more time trying to justify its existing smartphone philosophy and less time getting ahead of trends, even as it lost its market share advantage and started working on BlackBerry 10. Some saw the eventual departures of Lazaridis, Balsillie and a slew of executives as necessary to undo an institutionalized resistance to change.
The launch of BlackBerry 10 isn't just the test of a software redesign, then. It's gauging whether or not a leaner RIM is once again nimble enough to stay relevant. We haven't quite returned to the company's early days, but its current position is an uncannily familiar one where RIM has to bet the farm on a new project. The difference? RIM isn't entering an untapped wireless market this time. While it's on better footing than a defunct mobile veteran like Palm, there's not much room for a second chance. Follow along with our timeline to see just how RIM's opportunities opened up, closed shut and maybe (just maybe) opened up again with a new OS.
1984 - 1994
Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin officially founded Research in Motion on March 7th, 1984 with a desire to commercialize Budgie, a system that wirelessly displayed information on a TV screen. It generated enough business to let RIM take on side projects, including a film barcode reader, but the real kick start was the arrival of one of the earliest wireless data networks, Mobitex. Software deals to support it led to the 1993 launch of RIMGate, the precursor to BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and wireless point-of-sale terminals in 1994. This early period also saw the introduction of Jim Balsillie, who met Lazaridis while trying to negotiate a purchase of RIM in 1992 and quickly became the future BlackBerry maker's VP of Finance. Few other companies were as actively interested in mobile data at the time: apart from Mobitex creator Ericsson, the most conspicuous participant was IBM, whose smartphone-like Simon Personal Communicator went on sale briefly in 1994 and still depended on a 2,400-baud modem for data.
1995 - 2001
RIM's experience developing code for Mobitex led it to building hardware, starting with a PCMCIA modem in 1995. The company's first mobile messaging device, the RIM 900 Inter@ctive Pager, came a year later, followed by the smaller and more successful RIM 950 in 1998. The first hardware that resembled a BlackBerry as we know it today was the not-very-elegantly named RIM 957 from April 2000, but it only offered data and wasn't joined at the hip with the BlackBerry name. While the BlackBerry email service launched in January 1999 and went mobile with the 957, it would be three years before there was a proper BlackBerry phone. More smartphone-like technology was emerging in the form of devices like the Nokia 9000 series in 1996, Ericsson's Symbian-based R380 in 2000 and the Palm OS-running Kyocera 6035 in 2001, although few would say they cracked the market wide open when the PDA side was either crude or entirely separate. This was Palm's heyday, and many were still satisfied with a cellphone in one hand and a PDA in the other.
2002 - 2005
The BlackBerry era started in earnest in March 2002, when RIM unveiled the BlackBerry 5810. It was the first handheld from RIM to carry GSM and GPRS, although phone service was almost incidental when owners had to plug in a headset just to make calls. The situation got better when the 6710 and beyond had audio hardware built-in. Color came with the 7200 and 7700 series in 2003, but the real breakthroughs were the 6200 series from that year and the 7100 in 2004, which were explicitly targeted at "prosumers" who wanted a BlackBerry for personal use. In 2005, the 8700 series took the 7100's sleeker aesthetic to the high-end; for many, it was the first modern BlackBerry, where a polished design, phone features and a full keyboard were all in one device. Not that RIM could rest on its laurels. Nokia, Palm and others had thrown themselves wholeheartedly into smartphones, and Microsoft's launches of Pocket PC 2002 and Windows Mobile provided a start for smartphone makers that would eventually play important roles, like HTC.
2006 - 2007
It's at the middle of last decade that RIM simultaneously reached its creative zenith and sowed the seeds of its decline. The BlackBerry Pearl of 2006 was the company's first phone built expressly for the regular public, and had such radical concepts (for RIM) as a camera and dedicated media playback. Both the Pearl and the QWERTY-equipped Curve of 2007 would be key to an explosion in sales over the next few years. However, it's also in 2007 that Apple launched the iPhone and began the public's love affair with touchscreens in their mobile devices. RIM's response, even into 2010, was to downplay the threat; it argued that customers needed hardware keyboards. It was difficult to know then just how dangerous the attitude would be when others were similarly dismissive -- see Steve Ballmer's jab that the iPhone was too expensive to succeed, for example -- but it's clear in hindsight that RIM had put the blinders on at the very moment its eyes needed to be wide open.
2008 - 2009
Despite its love of physical keys, RIM's solution to newfound competition was to hedge its bets. Traditionalists got the upscale Bold 9000 line in May 2008; would-be Android and iPhone converts got the BlackBerry Storm in November of that year. BlackBerry App World also countered the Android Market and the App Store several months after the fact, in 2009. The platform reached a peak of 20.8 percent market share in the third quarter that same year, according to Gartner, but the bloom was already starting to come off the rose. The iPhone 3GS helped Apple outsell RIM for the first time, as Steve Jobs noted that fall. Hype for the Storm quickly fizzled out, and Verizon's edition of the Storm 2 launched the same day in October 2009 as the more heavily promoted (and ultimately more successful) Motorola Droid. RIM could mostly take comfort in knowing that the competing Nokia N97 and Palm Pre also did little to halt the declines of their respective creators.
RIM was aware that the BlackBerry needed more than just a small tuneup, and spent much of 2010 laying the groundwork for an overhaul. It bought real-time OS developer QNX in April for code that would eventually power BlackBerry Tablet OS and BlackBerry 10. Help building the interface would come in December, through the acquisition of mobile software developer The Astonishing Tribe. We quickly saw early results from the QNX deal when RIM previewed its first-ever tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook, in September. Mobile customers weren't patient enough to wait for a finished product: Apple eventually eclipsed RIM's market share on a more permanent basis and more and more of the BlackBerry's loyal enterprise users were among those switching to Android and the iPhone. Most long-serving competitors weren't faring much better. Palm's overcommitment to Sprint and its missed opportunity with Verizon led HP to snatch it up. The year was ultimately defined by Android, which Gartner says catapulted from a token 3.9 percent of the smartphone market in 2009 to 22.7 percent for 2010, just behind a rapidly crumbling Symbian.
RIM arguably faced its nadir of public perception in 2011. The PlayBook was rushed to market in April and tanked badly enough to require fire sale pricing for unsold stock -- in part because it initially lacked the very messaging features that were supposed to be RIM's strong suit. BlackBerry 7 devices like the Bold 9900 series gave RIM's legacy platform a last hurrah, but a sustained, worldwide service outage stained the line's reputation (and the company's) in October. Building the $2,000 Porsche Design P'9981 BlackBerry and losing the BBX trademark dispute didn't exactly endear RIM to the public, either. Management was increasingly seen as the problem, rather than the solution, as disappointing earnings and delays became the order of the day. The firm escaped the ignominy of Palm's fate, which saw HP reduce webOS to a side project, but was well behind Nokia in the reinvention process, which already had Windows Phone-based devices shipping in late 2011. Apple and Google both took advantage of customer frustration with old stalwarts like Nokia and RIM, to the point where their respective iOS and Android platforms were the only ones gaining significant share. Gartner and other firms crowned Android as the market leader in the spring, and Apple would eventually rise to second place in 2012.
The year of renewal... mostly. Balsillie and Lazaridis were out almost as soon as the year began, replaced by company veteran Thorsten Heins. He spent most of the year getting RIM's house in order, including thousands of job cuts among the rank and file. Multiple long-serving executives left, and little energy was put into new hardware outside of the already expected 4G PlayBook and budget phones. Most of the company's fate was now tied up in BlackBerry 10 and its matching devices. Heins ran into flak quickly: BlackBerry 10 was delayed into 2013, and the company started racking up significant losses after years of profit.
RIM is starting 2013 much as it spent most of 2012. It's in a race to establish BlackBerry 10 as a truly credible third competitor among smartphone platforms before the industry shifts to an Apple / Google duopoly -- and before the cash runs dry.