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WSJ details RIM’s long, sad decline

How resistant were executives at RIM to changing with the times? So resistant that, according to former Bank of America Securities analyst Brian Blair, they didn’t even want to add color screens to their devices. Blair is just one of many sources used in an exhaustive Wall Street Journal piece that details the myriad of reasons that RIM fell behind the times and has never been able to recover.

The details of the report shouldn’t come as any surprise to people who have followed RIM over the past five years and have watched the company stagger seemingly at random from one strategy to another while continuously losing ground and market share to both the iPhone and Android smartphones. The overall impression given in the article gels with the anonymous open letter written by a senior RIM executive and published by BGR just under a year ago. For those who are into watching autopsies, here are some of the highlights from the WSJ report:

The bet long made by RIM was that both corporate and individual customers would continue to favor the BlackBerry’s easy-to-use mobile email over the multiplying features and apps on Apple Inc.’s iPhone and devices running on Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

Speaking personally, I remember the first time I realized that RIM was truly, deeply in trouble — and by that I mean, the company wasn’t just experiencing a minor slump and was headed for a hard fall — was back in late 2010 when then-RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie downplayed the importance of mobile apps for smartphone and tablet users by saying that users “don’t need an app for the Web” because “Web needs a platform that allows you to use your existing Web content, not apps.”

As someone who had written up countless app slideshows in 2010 and had seen the enthusiastic response they’d gotten from readers who interested in learning about new apps to download, my first thought was, “That is completely bonkers.” And keep in mind, I was working for Network World at the time, whose core audience is the very IT professionals that RIM thought it had locked in for life with BlackBerry phones. The fact that the head of a major smartphone vendor could be so totally oblivious to a major trend within his own industry was mystifying to me.

Moving on, here’s the bit about RIM being resistant to having color screens on its devices:

At an investor meeting about a decade ago, analysts asked Mr. Lazaridis whether RIM was moving to a color screen, a feature popping up on devices in Asia. “Do I need to read my email in color?” he replied, according to Brian Blair, then an analyst with Banc of America Securities.

To be fair, as the Journal points out, colors screens were really only popping up in Asia at the time of this remark and were still considered too expensive by many North American vendors. But at the same time… yeesh. No, users don’t need to read their email in color, but users also frequently send one another attachments and links that do, in fact, require color to get the most out of them.

This comment strikes me as very similar to Balsillie’s in that it shows an executive thinking that past successes are the best blueprint for future revenues. RIM owned the market on smartphones at the time in the same way Atari once owned the market for console gaming, so it figured that no one could ever catch up. As everyone knows, that notion turned out to be very wrong.

Here’s another good bit:

The sales division produced a research report in 2010 on the future of tactile keyboards, the thumb-friendly feature that was a favorite in the early days of the BlackBerry. The report warned that in the era of Apple’s touch-only devices, keyboards would make up a diminishing share of the market, according to a person familiar with it, who said the warning was ignored.

I will say this: BlackBerry keyboards are the only thing left that RIM still does better than any other smartphone vendor, and ditching them all together could have damaged the company’s reputation with the many corporate users who still use BlackBerry phones to rapidly fire off emails and who don’t have time or patience to mess around with touchscreen-only devices.

The solution, it seems, was something along the lines of the original BlackBerry Torch model, if RIM hadn’t botched the execution of the hardware and user interface. Or perhaps RIM could have invested more into researching voice technology and come out with Siri-like software that made replying to emails through voice commands a snap. Heck, RIM could have decided to get really bold and make a gargantuan Galaxy Note-style device that featured both a physical keyboard and a large display screen with a stylus.

At any rate, RIM never figured out a way to square this particular circle and it has cost the firm dearly as the appetite for large, high-resolution screens has grown and RIM has been reduced to playing catchup with its rivals.

OK, last key excerpt from the Journal’s story, because I’m making myself sad thinking about a once-great company’s total collapse:

Mr. Balsillie asked if RIM should be worried about a new trend: consumers bringing their own smartphones to work and asking their employer to let them work on the devices. Some executives said the trend was a threat; a few said they weren’t worried. Mr. Balsillie went with the latter view, said a person close to the company.

This sort of attitude made sense when the iPhone was first released since it offered users no support for Microsoft Exchange, had no VPN client installed and didn’t have any remote wipe capabilities. But once Apple added all these features with iOS 4 in early 2010 — and once Google added them to Android with its “Froyo” update months later — the panic button should have been pressed.

At any rate, the entire WSJ piece is worth reading, even though it’s a largely depressing picture of one of the great innovators in recent tech history turning itself into a wreck and taking lots of smart, talented people down with it.

Prior to joining BGR as News Editor, Brad Reed spent five years covering the wireless industry for Network World. His first smartphone was a BlackBerry but he has since become a loyal Android user.