For RIM, New CEO Is Not Enough

RIM needs new blood and fresh thinking, attributes it still lacks following Sunday's CEO shakeup.
Jim Balsillie always seemed ready to pick a fight. RIM’s other co-CEO and co-founder, Mike Laziridis, always seemed ready for a hug. Their yin and yang drove an unmistakable passion within and around RIM, helping to build it into a company worth more than $70 billion not long ago. As with so many companies that become a defining force for an industry, however, that passion also came with blind spots exploited by other upstarts.

What RIM needs now isn't just new leadership. It also needs new blood and fresh thinking, attributes it still lacks following Sunday’s CEO shakeup. The co-founders are out, kicked into board-level positions. Their replacement, Thorsten Heins, a four-year company insider who previously was CTO of Siemens' Communications Division, has the resume and confidence for the job. But Heins has little new to add--practically by his own admission ("I don't think there is a drastic change needed," he said in a call with analysts early Monday).

Over the past two years, RIM lost customers, revenue, market share, market cap, and investors, as it miscalculated the popularity of new business models for smartphones in North America--one that involved media consumption, rather than e-mail. The investors drove this week's leadership change, but apparently they’re less than impressed with the successor, as RIM's share price plunged more than 8% following Sunday’s announcement.

Balsillie and Laziridis had led RIM into a quandary--the market leader turned industry whipping post--but they had a plan for pulling it out. It included a much better lineup of phones, new programs for developers, and acquisitions of companies such as TAT (displays and graphic user experience expertise), QNX (industrial-strength operating systems), and Ubitexx (multiplatform mobile device management). Their plan also included an overhaul of the BlackBerry platform, to the QNX-based BlackBerry 10. But none of those changes happened fast enough, which turns out to be the story of RIM's life.

RIM failed to anticipate customer demand for a touch user experience, bigger displays, slimmer designs, and application and Web experiences that worked incredibly fast. A new RIM executive told me earlier this month that the company had been caught off guard by how quickly North American consumers turned the smartphone into a data consumption device rather than a communications platform. Unlimited data plans were largely a U.S. phenomenon, and smartphone rivals Apple, Motorola, and Samsung understood that shift early on.

RIM, a truly global company, may have had its eyes on worldwide mobile dominance to the detriment of its U.S. market opportunity. The same RIM executive told me that in Africa, India, and similar markets, BlackBerry growth is astoundingly high, mainly because its customers see BlackBerry Messenger as a way to bypass texting on expensive data plans.

RIM's difficulties wooing developers are notorious. I spoke with a RIM product manager about its developer problem several years ago, and he said the company was busy turning things around, but he offered no evidence. I've heard the same story every year since. A glimmer of hope came at RIM's most recent developer conference, where executives unveiled some of the grassroots training programs it has begun worldwide. RIM continues to extend support for myriad programming tools, trying to reach developers where they live. It sounds, at once, hopeful and desperate.

But let's look on the bright side: Despite RIM's declining market share and market cap, it's still profitable, with cash and equivalents of about $1.5 billion. And so, the theory goes, it just needs to execute, only now without the elephants in the room. Only they're still there, on the board, to remind us that RIM may never change.

Instead of picking a company insider to succeed Balsillie and Laziridis, RIM should have gone after someone like Google's Andy Rubin or Hewlett-Packard's Jon Rubenstein, senior executives who've been around startups and turnarounds and who've built more inspiring customer experiences. And just for the singalong, RIM should have been in the position to announce that it intends to ship BlackBerry 10 early...hell, even if it's a month early. Something just to say that things aren't going to be the same around RIM.