RIM's Q3 Financials: A Tale of Two BlackBerries

People have been asking for my take on RIM's latest quarterly earnings, which were reported last week (link).  The short answer is that I am both less worried and more worried than I was before.  I am less worried because the company has more strength than I realized internationally, and I am more worried because the situation in North America is worse than I thought.

Before I get into my comments, I should point out that I don't think you can use a single quarter to declare a company either dead or saved, especially when it's as big and prominent as RIM.  In the last couple of years, attitudes toward RIM have gone through a couple of cycles in which negative coverage about the company builds up, the company has a good quarter, and the coverage dies down for a while again.  I think it's more useful to look beyond the individual quarters and try to see the long term trends.

In that spirit, I think RIM's earnings were good, but I was more interested in the things management said about moving toward new products and services, and by the very rapid changes happening in RIM's international sales.  Overall, I wouldn't say the company is out of the woods at all, and 2011 will be a decisive test of its viability.  Here's an overview of the earnings, followed by some comments on international and the new products.

Updating the charts

I plugged the latest numbers into the charts from my post on RIM in October (link).  They generally look like good news:

Total BlackBerry Subscribers

(Quarters are RIM fiscal quarters)

Continued nice growth.  But we'll come back to this one in a minute.

Net New Subscribers Per Quarter

This one is encouraging: additions went up compared to the quarter before.  But it's only one quarter; over the year, the rate of additions is flat.  Watch the next several quarters to see if there is a trend.

New Subscribers Per Unit Sold

Continuing to decline.  If you're looking for bad news on RIM, this is probably the chart you focus on. 

Device Gross Margins

Good news, they were stable for the quarter.  This is another statistic where you want to look at the trend rather than just a quarter's results.  And the trend for the last year looks stable, which ain't bad.  (Remember, I have to estimate this number because RIM doesn't report device gross margins separately.) 

Device Average Selling Price

Also stable for the last couple of quarters.  Good news.

Service Revenue Per User

 (Dollars per quarter.)  

I didn't chart this one last time, but it's interesting.  RIM currently gets about $15 in service fees per quarter per BlackBerry subscriber.  That's the money operators pay to RIM per user for the email service.  This revenue has been declining slowly but steadily for years, and I don't completely understand why.  RIM says it's due in part to a shift toward prepaid customers, which would fit with the international growth they're seeing.  But I wonder if also the operators are becoming less willing to share revenue with RIM.  Anyway, I think it's a warning sign -- as your market matures you want to find ways to make more money per user, not less.

Adding up all of the results, it looks like a very nice quarter.  But remember, one of my main points was that good short-term numbers can mask long-term problems.  And in this case, the way RIM reports its numbers hides some challenges.

Looking ahead: A Tale of Two BlackBerries

Two issues really stuck out to me as I looked at the RIM announcement: International sales, and the comments by RIM's management.

In the post I wrote in October, I missed the importance of RIM's international growth.  It was a significant oversight.  Several people, starting with mobile analyst Dean Bubley (link), pointed out in comments on my blog that BlackBerry has become very popular among young people in many parts of Europe and elsewhere as a messaging phone.  RIM also claims it is the number one smartphone platform in Latin America.  Its appeal was explained by analyst Horace Deidu, who notes that the BlackBerry Messenger app is more attractive than generic texting because it's free, and because you can see when your messages have been read (link).

Deidu looked at RIM's most recent quarterly financials, and concluded that RIM's revenues had actually declined in North America, a fact masked by the company's rapid growth in other parts of the world (link).  That surprised me, because it wasn't featured prominently in most of the reports on RIM's quarter.  It was also pretty alarming.  All of the charts above look relatively reassuring, but they're a blend of the international business and the North American one.  Since the signs of an impending platform collapse are subtle (something I explained in my October post), it's possible that the international growth is disguising big warning signs in North America.

Unfortunately, RIM doesn't report early indicators like gross margin by region, so I had to look for whatever data I could find.  I managed to dig out the numbers on the RIM subscriber base in North America vs. elsewhere.  RIM doesn't report this directly, but you can calculate it from the quarterly reports.  Here's what I found:

BlackBerry Subscribers
Total subscribers in millions

About half of RIM's subscribers are now outside North America (the crossover will probably happen this quarter).  Growth in North America looks pretty slow.  Here's what the subscriber growth rate looks like:

Quarterly Growth in Subscribers
Percent growth from quarter before

The BlackBerry subscriber base outside of North America has grown rapidly, increasing 15%-25% every quarter for the last three and a half years.  North American growth was also strong until about 18 months ago (the second quarter of FY 2010), when growth softened.  In the last two quarters, subscriber growth in North America dropped to almost zero. 

Yikes.  That sure smells like market saturation to me, and the process is a lot further along than I thought.

(Note: I had to interpolate the numbers for a few quarters in fiscal 2008 and 2009, because RIM didn't report them every quarter.)

So at the risk of oversimplifying a bit, the data and the anecdotes from around the world paint a picture of two RIMs: A consumer messaging phone company that has tapped into a new demographic and is growing fast in various parts of the world outside North America, and a prosumer e-mail phone company that has hit the wall in North America and needs very badly to re-ignite its growth through new products and services.  It is the best of times, it is the...oh, you get the idea.

This explains a lot of the confusion we're seeing in attitudes toward RIM online.  Like blind men feeling the elephant, we see the RIM that's in front of us -- either the consumer RIM that's growing well, or the prosumer RIM that has stalled out.  Who's seeing the real RIM?  We all are.  The phone market is heavily segmented, and it's common for a company to do well in one region and poorly in another (just look at Nokia).

I have to give a lot of credit to the folks at RIM for managing to crank up the growth internationally just as its North American business faltered.  I don't know if they were lucky or good, but it's a very hard balance to hit.  On the other hand, I don't think RIM is doing any favors to investors by playing down the regional data in its financial reports.  That creates a lot of confusion.

What it means for RIM.  It looks like the North American business may be closer to a platform collapse than I realized.  I think urgent action is needed to keep the company's North American users loyal.  The silver lining in that dark cloud is that RIM's growth in other regions can help fund the changes needed.  But time is short, and I still worry about RIM's ability to quickly focus on new differentiators and create compelling user experiences.

There's another path RIM could choose to follow -- it could milk its North American prosumer base for profits while accelerating its growth with young people overseas.  But if you can trust the comments of RIM's execs, that is not their direction.  They seem to believe they are on the verge of succeeding everywhere, in all segments.  RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie was effusive when he took questions in RIM's recent quarterly conference call (you can read a transcript here). 

His message boils down to this:
     --PlayBook will be a huge hit.
     --The new QNX operating system is great.
     --Unlike other companies (Apple and Google), RIM will work in cooperation with mobile operators, content providers, and banks to produce services for customers.  RIM will not bypass them, so they will steer customers to RIM.
     --Don't worry about the iPhone and Android app base, because mobile applications written to a particular OS will become less important in the near future, as users and developers look to support web standards and intermediate development platforms like Flash.
     --RIM provides the sort of reliability and security that enterprises want, so it will be the leading B2B mobile provider.
     --RIM is growing very fast, and has a lot of plans for 2011 that have not been fully revealed yet.  Adding these all together, the company has tremendous opportunities in the coming year.

I was surprised by how relentlessly upbeat Balsillie's comments were -- most CEOs usually hedge their statements to avoid saying something that could be quoted in a shareholder lawsuit.  Balsillie sounds like he's either extremely optimistic or extremely anxious to convince people not to write his company off.  But I checked some of the previous calls, and it turns out he's always like that. 

It's important that you understand the breadth and depth of RIM's ambition, so here are extended excerpts from his comments:

"We have real differentiation and we have real opportunities for extension of the business in a whole bunch of ways. I mean, just the pent-up interest in the PlayBook is really overwhelming, and then you know the whole aspects of carrier billing and value-added services -- you're just going to see a litany of things happening in that area, both for the BlackBerry tablet and the BlackBerry smartphone over the year....

"We're laying in the pieces here to sustain really exciting growth for a long, long, long time....we'll have some pretty pleasant surprises in what we're doing throughout the calendar 2011....

"We're selling lots...We have good products. Our engagement is good. I feel very, very good about U.S. I mean, we're meeting with the guys that run all the carriers, we've got plans, our carrier partners are in place. There is a real desire to do a lot of things and a lot of these things are locked in and new things are being planned....

"I feel great about where we're sitting for 2011 in the carriers in North America, and we've held our base and we've had growth in shipment and we've had okay net adds, but we're positioned to grow very, very strong. We've really knocked the cover off the ball in so many other markets around the world and yet our penetration in those are still very, very modest....We fell very, very good about the future....

"The product roadmap looks great and the application extension B2B and B2C is so strong.... You're going to see a lot of the stuff come out, really over the next month. So it should be very, very interesting....

"The interest in PlayBook in the B2B is uniformly strong....I can't think of an account that isn't just beating down to get units....Overwhelming interest and overwhelming pressure to get units are a pretty fair characterization. So we're very confident just what it's going to do for businesses....

"The core essence of the business is still just moving along so well and growing so fast. So if you layer in this tablet category, and then you layer in advanced services strategies and then you layer in leapfrog future-proved architectures, I feel very, very good about where we are in the U.S. I feel very good about where we are around the world.... Do I think we're in a position to really take where we are and extend it further in a sustained basis in the U.S. and abroad?  In my view, without a doubt....Just watch the year unfold and watch 2011 unfold and you should know. I'm fine just letting the proof being in the deliverables. We do keep delivering and we're going to keep delivering, so we're just going to keep it up....

"I think the PlayBook redefines what a tablet should do. I think we've articulated some elements of it and I think this idea of a proprietary SDK and unnecessary apps -- though there is a huge role for apps, I think it's going to shift in the market and I think it's going to shift very, very quickly and I think there's going to be a strong appetite for web fidelity and tool familiarity. And I think there's going to be a rapid desire for high performance, and I think we are way ahead on that. I think, CIO friendliness is...we are way ahead on that....So I think the PlayBook clearly sets the bar way higher on performance and you're going to see more. I think the enterprise stuff, we're seriously extending. I think the BlackBerry is still number one in social collaboration. And I think with the PlayBook and that environment we're going to set the new standard on performance and tools, very powerful tools and we're growing very, very fast."

This is called tying yourself to the mast. 

Maybe Balsillie is right.  Maybe RIM's on the verge of enormous opportunity and explosive growth.  I hope it is (seriously; I like RIM and I'd like it to succeed).  But RIM is fighting on an enormous number of fronts, and that scares me for a company that has problems creating high-quality knockout products and is transitioning to a new operating system.  The effect could be like flooring the gas in a car with a bad transmission -- you might get a surge of power, or you might leave half the engine on the highway.  Restoring momentum to a stalled-out platform is a very difficult task, and it rarely goes smoothly, or succeeds in a single year.  With all the hype the company is putting into PlayBook and the rest of its strategy, anything less than stellar success in all regions and all product lines in 2011 is going to be seen as a big disappointment.  And that sort of disappointment could be the signal that causes users to turn away from its platform in North America.

As I said two months ago, I think RIM's future depends on its ability to focus, differentiate, and execute.  I think the latest earnings just reinforce that.

[Note:  This post was revised Dec. 22 to add a paragraph and clarify some explanations.]

Is Symbian dead? And if so, who killed it?

"We should declare victory and go home."
--Apocryphal quote attributed to George David Aiken

I hesitate to write anything about Symbian, because it's a great way to get branded a parochial American, or an Apple fanboi, or a "member of the US-protectionistic mobs braying for blood," to paraphrase a comment from a tech discussion forum in the UK this month.

But there's been a huge cloud of smoke and very little light in the recent online discussions of the changes at Symbian. Is Symbian dead? Is it stronger than ever? What's really going on? I wanted to see if I could make sense of the announcements. Besides, there are some important lessons from the Symbian experience, and I'd like to call those out.

Here's my take on what's happened: The business entity called Symbian was originally designed to prevent Microsoft from controlling the mobile OS standard, without having Symbian itself seize control over the mobile phone companies that funded it. In that task it succeeded. However, as a company run by a consortium, Symbian's governance was politicized and inefficient. This left Symbian woefully unequipped to compete with Apple and Google. A different approach was needed, and Nokia's new management has finally come to terms with that. As a result, Symbian as an organization is now defunct, and Symbian as an OS is becoming background infrastructure that has little relevance to the mobile platform wars.

To explain why I reached that conclusion, I have to start with a quick refresher on Symbian's history, for readers who haven't been following it closely...

There are two things named Symbian: Symbian the company and Symbian the OS. Some of the confusion this month was caused by people mixing up the two things. Symbian OS began as EPOC, the operating system used in Psion's handheld devices. EPOC was spun out of Psion in 1998 as a separate company called Symbian, co-owned by Psion and most of the leading mobile phone companies of the day, led by Nokia. The idea was that all of them would use the renamed Symbian OS in their smartphones, enabling them to put up a unified front against Microsoft, which they feared would rule the smartphone market.

Over time Nokia came to be the dominant manufacturer of Symbian OS phones outside of Japan, largely (in my opinion) because the Symbian phones made by other mobile phone companies didn't sell well. Eventually the other mobile phone companies no longer wanted to pay for a joint venture that was mostly just supplying software to Nokia. Linux was gaining momentum as a free, open source mobile OS, so the Symbian partners, led by Nokia, decided in 2008 to convert Symbian OS into an open source project. Nokia hired most of the Symbian engineers, and gave away their code through the foundation.

Symbian the company was replaced by the Symbian Foundation, a nonprofit tasked with managing the open source process and encouraging other companies to sign up to use the software. The idea was that Nokia, the other Symbian licensees, and a growing hoard of academics and developers would work on various parts of the OS, contributing back their modified code to the shared base. The move to open source kept some level of engagement from several other mobile phone companies, most notably Samsung and SonyEricsson.

But both companies continued to have poor sales for their Symbian phones, and this fall they announced that they had no further plans to use the OS. That left DoCoMo in Japan as the only other major user of Symbian. Nokia was stuck with an open source foundation that mostly just supplied its own software back to it. That wasn't going to be viable. So earlier this month, Nokia and Symbian announced three significant changes:

--The Symbian Foundation is being dramatically scaled back to "a legal entity responsible for licensing software and other intellectual property, such as the Symbian trademark." (link). In other words, it's just a shell. Symbian is now truly Nokia's OS. Nokia will plan, develop, and manage the Symbian code base, and distribute it directly to anyone who still wants it (presumably DoCoMo). You can read a biting commentary on the changes here.

--At the same time, Nokia reaffirmed an announcement it made in October that it is focusing all of its application development support on the Qt software layer that it purchased several years ago (link). Qt will now apparently be Nokia's one and only application layer, deployed on both Symbian and the upcoming MeeGo OS being codeveloped with Intel (link).

--The EU is putting 11 million Euros into a new organization, called Symbeose (which stands for "Symbian – the Embedded Operating System for Europe"), which will help fund the development of advanced Symbian OS features, including asymmetric multiprocessing, dev tools, memory management, image processing, video acceleration, speech to text, mobile payment, multimedia formats, and embedded systems beyond mobile. There are two semi-conflicting explanations of what Symbeose is all about. Some people say it's aimed at turning Symbian into an embedded OS that can run in all sorts of devices (why Europe needs that instead of Linux is unclear to me, but you can hear some discussion of the wrongheaded North American mobile paradigm here). Others say the intent is to resurrect Symbian OS as a smartphone OS used by companies other than Nokia. In a presentation, Symbian Foundation said the investment is intended to "combat mobile device and service homogeneity exemplified by Android and iOS" (link). Apparently taxpayer support is needed because Nokia isn't willing to pay for some infrastructure needed by other phone companies (link). A Symbian Foundation employee explained: "I would say that the main focus of the developments will be advancing existing, as well as building new tools and services relevant for smartphone manufacturing at the beginning of the manufacturing process. We want to make it easier for any manufacturer to take the Symbian codebase and develop new smartphones" (link).

What it means

Symbian isn't dead. It's just irrelevant. After the announcement, Nokia professed its strong support for Symbian OS (link). Nokia has no choice but to support the OS because it's built into the whole middle to top end of the Nokia product line. Given all of the legacy Nokia code written in Symbian OS, the Symbian-based phones still in development, and all of the Nokia development teams who are used to working in Symbian, it would probably take years to flush all of the Symbian code out of Nokia's products even if it wanted to. Symbian at Nokia is kind of like Cobol at IBM -- you're going to go on tasting that particular meal for a long time to come.

But the decision to focus on Qt for applications means that Symbian OS is effectively no longer an app development platform. It's embedded software; the background plumbing that powers Nokia's smartphones (and maybe other embedded systems, if the EU has its way). There's nothing wrong with that, but it makes Symbian irrelevant to most of the folks who talk about mobile technologies online. We don't spend much time online debating which OS kernel a device should use, and that's now the world Symbian lives in. The real competition for developer and smartphone user loyalty in most of the world is now Qt vs. iOS, Android, and RIM. Plus that Windows thing.

What it means for Nokia: Hope. Nokia's app recruitment efforts have been hamstrung for years by what I think was an incoherent software platform story. What should developers write their software on? Symbian native, S60, Silverlight, Qt, Adobe Air, Java...at one time or another Nokia romanced just about every mobile platform on the market. Nokia said that was a strength, but actually it was a sign of indecision and internal conflict. Developers crave predictability; they want to know that the platform they choose today will still be supported five years from now. By flitting from platform to platform like a butterfly, Nokia sent the unintentional signal that developing for it was dangerous.

Many developers did support Nokia anyway, especially in places where the Nokia brand and market share were so dominant that the decision was a no-brainer. But I think their loyalty did a disservice to Nokia in some ways, because it blinded the company to the shortcomings in its developer proposition. When Nokia had trouble recruiting developers in places like Silicon Valley, it seemed to think they were just biased against it. Time and again, I attended Nokia developer events in California where Nokia concentrated on telling people how big its installed base was, and showing off its latest hero device (N97, anyone?). I can see Nokia's logic -- after all, developers in Europe seemed happy. But the reality was that developers in Europe had given it the benefit of the doubt, despite its poor overall proposition.

So the decision to focus on Qt (pronounced "cute," get used to it) is a positive one, in my opinion. This is one of those cases where making any decision is better than the status quo. Qt isn't perfect, but if all of Nokia aligns behind it, any problems in it can be ironed out.

Unfortunately for Nokia, this is just the beginning of the changes it needs to make, rather than the end. Nokia's Qt development tools still reportedly need work (link). And app developers don't just need a coherent technical story, they also need a coherent business story. How do they make money? Although Nokia sells a huge number of Symbian-based smartphones, most of their users seem blissfully unaware that they can add applications. That's why Nokia has a much smaller base of applications than iPhone, even though its customer base is far larger.

To attract more developers, Nokia will need to do a lot of marketing, both in advertising and on the device, to make sure Qt users know they can get apps, and are stimulated to try them out. Nokia has the resources to do this, but once again it'll need consistent and well coordinated execution to make it happen, something that the company has failed to deliver in the past. (For example, spamming people with SMS messages telling them to try other features is probably not the right approach (link).)

To give you an idea of how much ground Nokia needs to make up, Apple iOS has 60 million users and 225,000 applications, a ratio of about 3.75 applications per thousand users. Android is close behind, with 3.5 apps per thousand users. In contrast, Symbian has 390 million users and 7,000 native apps, a ratio of about .02 apps per thousand users. (link). Yes, I know, there are additional Nokia apps written in Java, but that kind of proves the point that Symbian is plumbing rather than a platform.

All of these changes need to be carried out against a backdrop of cost cutting, as Nokia brings its expenses in line with its revenues. One of these days when I get the time I'll write more about Nokia's overall situation, but for now suffice it to say that Nokia is working off the after-effects of several years of growing expenses while revenue was stagnant. Nokia's circumstances aren't quite as bad as the California state budget (if you are in Europe, think Greece), but it's ugly enough to distract from all of the other things the company needs to fix.

What it means for developers: Wait. First, the bad news: The switch to Qt means that current Symbian OS developers who aren't already using Qt will need to rewrite their applications. This is the latest in a series of rewrites that Nokia and Symbian have forced on developers over the years. If they had more developers it probably would be causing a big ruckus right now. The fact that you don't hear a lot of screaming speaks volumes.

The good news is that Nokia may be getting its act together for developers at last. But if I were working on a mobile application today...wait a minute, I am working on a mobile application today. So here's what I'm doing about Nokia: I'm waiting. If Nokia creates a great business proposition for developers and sticks to it, our team would be delighted to support Qt aggressively. Who wouldn't want to sell to a base of 400 million users? But given Nokia's history of whipsawing its developers, we won't take anything for granted. In particular, we want to see if Qt is actually the exclusive development platform for MeeGo, rather than just a secondary option. You've got to show us the consistency, Nokia.

Oh, and ignore Symbeose. I don't know exactly how the Symbeose initiative got started, but to me it looks like the Symbian Foundation lobbied for it for a long time, prior to the recent changes in the Foundation. For the old Foundation, Symbeose made sense, because it was a clever way for a nonprofit to get some OS development done in areas that Nokia didn't care about. But with the Foundation mostly gone, Nokia has no incentive to turn Symbian into a general embedded OS, and in fact it says MeeGo is its OS for use in non-phones. In that situation, I can't picture a lot of other companies committing to build Symbian OS into their products.

Lessons from the Symbian Foundation's demise

I'm seeing a lot of interesting rationalization online about Symbian's fate. For example, Tim Ocock, a former Symbian employee, wrote a fantastic post (link) in which he argues that Symbian was very successful as an OS for phones with PDA features, but was never designed for running browsers and lots of applications. That's a pretty shocking statement, considering how many times I heard Symbian advocates boast about the sophistication of their modern, general purpose OS compared to clunky old PDA-centric Palm OS. Remember, this is a company that until very recently was bragging about its superior implementation of symmetric multiprocessing (link), hardly something you need for a PDA.

But I think Tim is dead-on in most of his analysis. He did a great job of detailing the technical and attitudinal flaws within Symbian itself, so I won't bother repeating them here. Instead, I want to talk about the flaws in Symbian's governance.

Did Symbian fail? The companies that founded Symbian had two goals in mind: to prevent Microsoft from dominating the market for smartphone software, and to prevent Symbian itself from becoming a power that could dictate to the phone companies that funded it. As a result, Symbian's governance structure was designed with a complex system of checks and balances that wouldn't apply to a normal company. To make major decisions, Symbian had to negotiate a consensus among its owners the mobile phone companies, who understood little about the management of a mobile platform and were suspicious of each other and of Symbian itself.

This bureaucratic, highly politicized oversight process repeatedly forced Symbian into blind alleys, and prevented it from doing things that a "normal" OS company would take for granted. When Symbian was founded, there was talk of an eventual IPO. The prospect of an IPO is an important recruitment tool -- it lets you use stock to hire ambitious engineers and managers. But the idea was eventually shot down by the owners; it would have made Symbian too independent.

Crippled by design. Once the threat from Microsoft receded, the owners' second goal for Symbian -- preventing it from competing with them -- seemed to dominate their treatment of Symbian. I'm not saying there was some central evil plan to hamstring Symbian; there wasn't. But everything the company planned to do had to be approved by the handset companies, and on a case by case basis they vetoed the things that sounded threatening to them. Over time, this forced Symbian away from initiatives and features that would cause users and developers to be loyal to the OS rather than the handset.

So Symbian didn't create an app store, and Symbian's developer relations were very confused because Nokia wanted to do a lot of that itself. But the most egregious example was user interface, which Symbian worked on from time to time, but was eventually forced out of by its owners. When I was at Palm, the Symbian project I feared most was "Quartz," the effort to create an icon-driven touchscreen UI for Symbian. Quartz looked very nice, and if it had survived Symbian would have had a dandy iPhone competitor on the market before the iPhone launched. But politics between Symbian's owners forced it completely out of the UI business, and Quartz was spun out into a separate company called UIQ, which went bankrupt in 2009.

You can get more details on the whole sad Quartz saga here.

Quartz circa 2001

An OS without a single consistent user interface is a nightmare for software developers, because they can't write apps that run across the installed base of devices.

Eventually, in the face of all the restrictions, the most ambitious, nonconformist people at Symbian -- the ones who drive innovation in any organization -- seemed to drift away in frustration or were forced out when they irritated the owners. Symbian itself retreated into focusing on technological esoterica like symmetric multiprocessing -- things that didn't really differentiate the platform to users, but that the licensees wouldn't object to.

From one perspective I guess you can say Symbian was a complete success, because it fulfilled the two negatives that its founders wanted: Microsoft didn't dominate mobile software, and Symbian itself didn't exercise any control over its founders.

However, the cumulative effect of the handset companies pursuing their short-term interest was that Symbian was utterly unready to respond when Apple and Google entered the market. I don't think either Nokia or Symbian really understood how the game had changed. Apple designs phones as integrated systems, with the software and hardware tightly coordinated. Nokia could never achieve that level of coordination with an operating system managed through standards committees.

And as for Android, Nokia apparently thought that open sourcing Symbian would create a level playing field with Google's free OS. But I think the structure of the Symbian Foundation made that impossible.

The fatal flaw of the Symbian Foundation. Although Android is a free product, it's supported by a for-profit corporation that has massive resources. The attraction of Android to phone companies isn't just its price, but its safety -- Google stands behind it with marketing and technical support.

In contrast, Symbian Foundation was designed as a rigorously noncommercial institution banned from any business activity. People at the Foundation told me Nokia was adamant about enforcing the ban on commercial activity because it was afraid the tax authorities might rule that the foundation wasn't a nonprofit, endangering the tax credit that Nokia got for donating its Symbian code base.

Most open source companies give away their software in order to make money from some other mechanism -- consulting, or support, or a for-fee version of the same code. Symbian Foundation was banned from making money on any of these activities, meaning it could never become financially self-supporting.

Forget about marketing support; Symbian couldn't even offer enhanced technical support to licensees who were begging to pay for it. That was especially crippling because Symbian OS is notoriously complex and difficult to program (link).

Consider this quote from Tim Ocock's article:

"The difficulty of writing good Symbian code was hugely beneficial to Symbian as a business in the early days. For many years, 80% of Symbian's revenues were earned through consulting for licensees....Symbian’s licensees...each had their own proprietary telephony chipsets that needed to be integrated and their own customisations to the platform in mind....Despite talk of Symbian enabling differentiation, the reality was licensees' budgets were squandered on hardware porting and making the core platform fit for purpose."

Picture yourself as a manager at a handset company, choosing an OS for your smartphone. The Symbian option has no advertising support, requires customization, is hard to program, has few third party consultants to support it, and the company licensing it won't help you do the programming. Meanwhile, Google Android is more modern, is based on Java and Linux so it's easy to find programmers, has lots of support, and has user-friendly features like an app store. Which one seems the safer bet?

How could the Symbian Foundation ever succeed in that situation?

Although people advocating for a "European" mobile OS often complain that Android had unfair financial advantages, the fact is that Symbian was ripe for the picking, a situation that was almost entirely self-inflicted.

The lesson for other tech companies: Open source is not magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on a struggling product to turn it into a winner. Open source is a tactic, not a business strategy. It has to be paired with a business plan that says how you'll make money and drive innovation.

This is the end, my friend, of our elaborate plans

Like an army refighting the last war, Symbian was designed to defeat Windows Mobile, but never came to terms with its new adversaries Apple and Google. There's no shame in that for most of the folks who worked at Symbian; they did the best they could to navigate the politics of Nokia and all the other Symbian licensees. But radical change was necessary. I hope Nokia's Qt strategy will be successful. And I'm sure that Symbian code will continue to serve for years as the underlying technology for millions of Nokia smartphones. But except in the dreams of a few EU officials, Symbian OS is now just legacy plumbing.

It's time to move on.

Will E-Readers Eat the Tablet Computer?

The consensus prediction in the tech industry is that tablet computer sales will swamp sales of ebook readers. The Huffington Post is taking bets on which e-readers are dead meat (link), and Informa predicts that e-reader sales will start declining in 2014 as tablets out-compete them (link). I've seen similar (and more pessimistic) private forecasts from other analysis firms. They all argue that it's just a matter of time until general-purpose tablet computers displace more limited e-readers.

Yes and no. I think tablet features will eventually take over, but it would be very premature to assume that tablet computer companies will be the long-term winners. They're actually at a huge disadvantage that almost no one is talking about.

What brought this home to me was a brief hands-on experience I had last week with the Barnes & Noble Nook Color. I usually think of Nook as the poor stepchild to Amazon Kindle, and in unit sales it certainly is. But Nook Color isn't just an ebook reader. It's a full tablet computer, or at least it will be if Barnes & Noble allows it to be. And it sells at a great price.

The easiest way to explain my reaction to Nook Color is to compare it to the Samsung Galaxy Tab. The first thing I noticed was basic ergonomics. As I wrote recently, when I first picked up the Galaxy Tab it worried me because it was hard to hold -- its slick plastic surface felt like it was going to slip out of my hand, and so I couldn't hold it comfortably without putting my thumb on the screen (link). The Nook Color is almost identical to the size and weight of the Galaxy Tab, so I expected to have the same problem. But the Nook has a brushed metallic-feeling surface that's much easier to grip. Attention to detail has a huge impact on mobile products, and Nook Color shows far more attention to detail than the Galaxy Tab.

The Galaxy Tab definitely has more features than the Nook: two cameras, 3G options, and an accelerometer. But Nook Color has all the basics, including Android OS, a touchscreen, and very nice color display that I think is the equal of Samsung's. And it has one important feature that The Galaxy Tab lacks -- an affordable price. A Nook Color with WiFi is $249, literally half the price of a similarly-equipped Galaxy Tab.

That's a stunning difference, especially considering that Samsung usually tries to be a price leader in new technologies. At $499, I think the Galaxy Tab will be a very difficult purchase for the average consumer. At $249, Nook Color isn't cheap, but it's a mainstream consumer product.

So how in the world does a book-seller get a 50% price advantage over a major consumer electronics company?

The difference isn't mostly due to features. I bet the accelerometer and cameras in the Galaxy Tab don't add more than $20 to its cost, probably less. The Tab probably has a faster processor as well, but no way does that justify the cost difference. I think two other factors are involved. The first is that B&N owns its own retail stores, and so it doesn't necessarily have to mark up the price of the Nook with the full traditional retail margin. In contrast, Samsung will be expected to fork over the usual 20 points or so of margin to its dealers, plus additional comarketing dollars to buy shelf displays and Sunday newspaper ads. Second, since B&N makes money from the content it sells to Nook users, it can afford to sell the hardware at lower cost.

In other words, the Nook is a subsidized product, like a cellphone. So is Kindle.

I think the people predicting that tablets will swamp e-readers haven't thought through the economics of the situation. As long as e-readers are based on e-ink displays, they can't compete directly with tablets, because the displays are grayscale and are too slow to display animation and video. But an e-reader with an LCD display is physically a tablet, at a much more attractive price.

Subsidized products usually beat unsubsidized ones. Even Apple had to move the iPhone onto subsidies after it first launched it without.

The only thing stopping Nook Color from competing directly with tablets is software. Although Nook Color runs the Android OS, same as Samsung, Barnes & Noble is reportedly planning to severely restrict the applications that will run on Nook Color. The idea is to keep the device focused as an e-reader rather than allowing it to become a general-purpose tablet.

It's unusual for a company to artificially restrict what you can do with a computing product, but there is a perverse logic to what Barnes & Noble is doing. If someone buys Nook Color as a tablet and doesn't buy any books or other content for it, Barnes & Noble will make less money. By restricting the apps, Barnes & Noble can chase away those lower-margin customers who aren't hardcore readers.

But I think that's a very short-sighted policy, for two reasons:

First, as a dedicated e-reader, Nook has important drawbacks. Its battery life is much shorter than an e-ink device, and it's a lot more expensive. If the apps are restricted, Nook Color is a tweener. It's inferior as an e-reader and as a tablet.

Second, B&N is missing a huge opportunity. It's not like they're losing money on Nook Color sales (the hardware cost is probably in the $150 range, or lower). As long as you're making some money per unit, I think it makes sense to grab as many customers as you can now, while you have a structural advantage in the market.

The ultimate payoff for an ebook distributor like B&N is to displace the publishers and start selling ebooks (and other content) directly to the public. To get to that goal, B&N should be trying to grow the e-reader installed base as quickly as possible. Instead of restricting Nook Color to people who already want ebooks, B&N should sell it to everyone and then entice them into becoming e-reading users.

Historically, some of the most successful computing products were sold first as single-purpose devices that then blossomed into multipurpose devices. PCs were first adopted in volume to run spreadsheets, and the first successful PDAs were sold as electronic calendars. Nook Color could be the e-reader that ate the tablet market.

And it's easy to do -- all B&N has to do is say yes to all types of third party apps. Get out of the way, and the customers will take care of the rest.

What is Samsung thinking?

This is an interesting time for tablet computing fans, with the HP Slate (link) being announced today and a revised B&N Nook (link) supposedly being announced next week. Meanwhile, I'm still coming to the terms with the pricing Samsung announced this week for its upcoming Galaxy Tab.

I had a very strong negative reaction to the price, but I wanted to wait a couple of days to see how I'd feel after I had time to think about it. So now I've thought about it, and here's my reaction:

$600 for a seven-inch tablet?? Are you freaking kidding me? A whole netbook costs about $400. Why does it cost $200 extra just to remove the keyboard?

I don't understand Samsung's strategy. A $400 device is maybe an impulse buy for a rich person at Christmas. A $600 device is a carefully considered investment for most people, especially when all the most enthusiastic tablet buyers have already been siphoned off by Apple.

I got a chance to play with a Galaxy Tab at CTIA. The interface is very cool, but I kept asking myself what I'd actually use it for. What problems does it solve that you can't solve with a smartphone? Samsung appears to assume that Apple has created a market for generic tablets to do, you know, tablet stuff. But has it? Or has it created a market for iPads that seamlessly handle lots of content and unique applications?

And although the design of the Galaxy Tab looks nice, I think the ergonomics of it are questionable. Despite what Samsung's publicity photos show, the device is a bit too wide to hold comfortably even in my dinnerplate-sized hand. To hold it securely, I needed to put my thumb on the front of it. But the margins around the screen are so narrow, and the back case is so slippery, that I felt like I was going to drop it when I put my thumb alongside the screen. The weight of the device also put uncomfortable pressure on my thumb (it's a lever effect). My grip felt more secure and comfortable if I put my thumb on the screen, but then I would accidentally press icons and interfere with the interface.

Although Samsung likes to talk about itself as a leader, in practice it's usually a fast follower -- give it a device to copy and it'll turn out its version faster than just about anyone else on the planet. If the device sells, great. If it doesn't, Samsung just moves on to the next device. My guess is that's what it'll do with the Galaxy Tab.

I'm hoping for better from other new products, although I'm not encouraged by what I'm hearing about the HP device (for one thing, Friday is a terrible day to announce a product because your news coverage gets cut off by the weekend). But I'd like to get my hands on that one before I make up my mind about it.

(Note: This post was modified on 10/22 to correct the announcement date for the HP Slate.)

What's really wrong with BlackBerry (and what to do about it)

Just a couple of weeks after Research in Motion turned in a good earnings report, the death watch over the company has resumed, with Business Week magazine running a long article that mocks co-CEO Jim Balsillie (even picking on his duck-emblazoned tie) and saying that RIM needs to learn how to market as well as Apple (link).

Business Week quoted Balsillie at a press briefing:

"There's tremendous turbulence in the ecosystem, of course, in mobility. And that's sort of an obvious thing, but also there is tremendous architectural contention at play. And I'm going to really frame our mobile architectural distinction. We've taken two fundamentally different approaches in their causalness. It's a causal difference, not just nuance. It's not just a causal direction that I'm going to really articulate here -- and feel free to go as deep as you want -- it's really as fundamental as causalness."

OK, he deserves to be mocked for that. But Business Week goes on to conclude that his quote captures the whole dilemma of the company -- technical sophistication coupled with incoherent marketing.

Business Week has joined a large and distinguished group of experts taking jabs at RIM. Morgan Stanley recently downgraded RIM's stock, saying it's going to lose share faster than previously expected (link). Gartner reported that Android had passed BlackBerry to become the most popular smartphone OS in the US (link). And CNET said RIM is about to be kicked out of the enterprise market (link).

I've been getting very tired of the criticisms of RIM, because most of them seem superficial and some are petty. Yes, Android is doing well, but neither RIM nor Apple is giving away its operating system, so it was close to inevitable that Android would eventually get the unit lead. It's the default choice for most smartphone companies, so of course it moves a lot of units in aggregate. But there is room in the market for several mobile platforms to succeed. The companies Android is hurting most are Microsoft, Access, and others that were hoping to sell mobile operating systems.

Yes, RIM's not good at sexy marketing, but it has always been that way. People have been predicting its imminent doom for as long as I can remember (do you recall when Microsoft Exchange was supposed to destroy it?). My guess is that the folks at RIM are shaking their heads at all of the bad press and assuming it will once again blow over in a quarter or two.

I think that would be a serious mistake. In my opinion, RIM is indeed in danger, probably a lot more danger than its executives realize. But I don't agree on the reasons most people are giving for why RIM is in trouble, and I think most of the solutions that are being proposed would make the situation worse, not better.

The fault lies not in our ties, but in our selves. In my opinion, RIM's real problems center around two big issues: its market is saturating, and it seems to have lost the ability to create great products. This is a classic problem that eventually faces most successful computer platforms. The danger is not that RIM is about to collapse, but that it'll drift into in a situation where it can't afford the investments needed to succeed in the future. It's very easy for a company to accidentally cross that line, and very hard to get back across it.

There's a lesson in RIM's situation for every tech company, so it's worthwhile to spend some time understanding what's happening.

How a computing platform dies

To explain RIM's challenges, I have to give you a little tech industry history. When I worked at Apple, I spent a lot of time studying failed computer platforms. I thought that if we understood the failures, we might be able to prevent the same thing from happening to us.

I looked at everything from videogame companies to the early PC pioneers (companies like Commodore and Atari), and I found an interesting pattern in their financial results. The early symptoms of decline in a computing platform were very subtle, and easy for a business executive to rationalize away. By the time the symptoms became obvious, it was usually too late to do anything about them.

The symptoms to watch closely are small declines in two metrics: the rate of growth of sales, and gross profit per unit sold (gross margins). Here's why:

Every computing platform has a natural pool of customers. Some people need or want the platform, and some people don't. Your product spreads through its pool of customers via the traditional "diffusion" process -- early enthusiasts first, late adopters at the end.

It's relatively easy to get good revenue from the early adopters. They seek out innovations like yours, and are willing to pay top dollar for it. As the market for a computer system matures, the early adopters get used up, and the company starts selling to middle adopters who are more price-sensitive. In response to this, the company cuts prices, which results in a big jump in sales. Total revenue goes up, and usually overall profits as well. Everybody in the company feels good.

Time passes, and that middle portion of the market gets consumed. Eventually demand growth starts to drop, and you make another price cut. Sales go up again, sometimes a lot. With revenue rising, you and your investors talk proudly about the benefits of reaching the "mainstream" market.

At Apple, when we hit this point we called our low-cost products the Macintosh Classic and Macintosh LC. At Palm, it was the M100.

What you don't realize at this point is that you're not "reaching the mainstream," you're actually consuming the late adopters. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to tell when you're selling to the late adopters. They don't wear signs. Companies tend to assume that because the adoption curve is drawn as a smooth-sided bell, your demand will tail off at the end as gradually as it built up in the beginning. But that isn't how it works. At the start, you are slowly building up momentum from a base of nothing. That takes years. But by the time you saturate the market you have built up huge sales momentum. You have a strong brand, you have advertising, you have a big distribution channel. You'll gulp through the late adopters really rapidly. The result is that sales continue to grow until they drop suddenly, like a sprinter running off the edge of a cliff.

The chart below illustrates how the process works:

Until you get close to the end, your revenue keeps rising, enabling you to tell yourself that the business is still in good shape. But eventually you reach the dregs of the market, and sales will flatten out, or maybe even start to drop. You cut prices again, but this time they don't increase demand because there are no latent customers left. All the cuts do is reduce further the revenue you get from selling upgrades to your installed base. The combination of price cuts and declining sales produces a surprisingly rapid drop in revenue and profits. If you want to make a profit (which your investors demand), your only choice is to make massive cuts in expenses. Those cuts usually end up eliminating the risky new product ideas that are your only hope of re-igniting demand.

At Apple I called this the platform "death spiral" because once you get into it, the expense cuts and sales declines reinforce each other. It's almost impossible to reverse the process, unless you're Steve Jobs and you get very lucky.

The best way to survive is to stay away from the cliff edge in the first place. But that means you need to be hyper-attentive to small changes in sales growth and gross margins. Which brings us back to RIM's situation.

Dissecting RIM's financials

At the top level, RIM's financials look utterly fantastic:

RIM Revenue and Profit

Fiscal years. Dollars in millions.

Since fiscal 2003 (when it turned profitable), RIM has grown from $500m revenue to over $15 billion. That's 30X growth in eight years. The BlackBerry subscriber base has grown from 500,000 people to about 50 million. Throughout that period, the company's net income has hovered at between 15% and 22% of revenue.

This is one of the most impressive business success stories of the last decade, and most CEOs in any industry would kill to have that sort of results. Considering how much turmoil there is in the smartphone market, RIM's senior managers must feel extremely proud of their success, and more than a bit bewildered that people keep criticizing them.

And that's exactly my point. Looking at the high-level financials can lull you into a false sense of security if you're managing a computing platform. You have to really dig to find the warning signs. That's especially hard to do in RIM's case because the company has several different sources of revenue: device sales, service revenue, and enterprise server revenue. The overall results they report are mashup of all three revenue streams. To understand what's really happening, you have to tease them apart. Here are some key data points.

First, let's look at the total number of BlackBerry subscribers:

Total BlackBerry Subscribers

RIM's fiscal quarters. Units in millions.

Pretty impressive growth. But remember, we're looking for subtle signs of saturation. Let's look at the number of subscribers added per quarter...

Net New Subscribers Per Quarter

RIM's fiscal quarters. Units in millions.

This is where you get the first little twinge of discomfort. Until a year ago, the rate of growth of BlackBerry subscribers was itself increasing every quarter. In other words, RIM added more new subscribers each quarter than it had added in the previous quarter. But for the last four quarters, RIM's subscriber growth has plateaued at around 4.7 million net new subscribers a quarter. The company's still growing, but it looks like the rate of growth may be flattening. That might imply the beginning of saturation.

Next let's look at net new subscribers as a percent of total BlackBerry units sold.

New Subscribers Added Per Unit Sold

RIM's fiscal quarters.

This one's a little disquieting as well. Five years ago, RIM was getting .7 new subscribers for every BlackBerry sold. In other words, most of its sales were to new users. Today, RIM is getting .37 more subscribers per BlackBerry sold, and that figure is at an all-time low. To put it another way, RIM now has to sell more than two and a half devices to get one more subscriber. Either RIM is selling most of its units to its installed base, or it is having to bring in a lot of new customers to replace those who are leaving for other devices. My guess is it's a mix of both.

If you look closely at that chart, you'll notice a curious bump in the line at Q4 of 2009. The percentage of new subscribers went back up all of a sudden. What did RIM do to produce that growth? A look at device gross margins tells you.

Device Gross Margin Percentage

RIM's fiscal quarters.

[Note: RIM does not report separately the gross margins it gets in the devices business, so I had to estimate this number using the company's hardware revenue and the total cost of goods sold across all of its businesses. Most of RIM's total COGS are hardware expenses, but they also include some server costs associated with providing e-mail service. That means my calculation understates RIM's device margins by a bit. But as the company grows, server costs should go down as a percent of overall costs (because you get better economies of scale). So apparent hardware margins should be going up over time. That makes the fact that they're declining all the more ominous.]

RIM increased new subscriptions by substantially cutting the profit it makes per device. What happened is that the BlackBerry Bold, Storm, and Curve all came to market with increased features, replacing older devices that were much cheaper to build. That should have produced only a one-time hit to margins, though -- they should have gone back up as component costs on the new phones declined. Instead, margins have stayed down ever since. Why? Let's look at the what RIM gets paid for each BlackBerry it sells:

RIM's Revenue Per BlackBerry Device Sold

RIM's fiscal quarters. Hardware revenue per unit sold.

This chart shows the average price the carriers pay to RIM per phone, prior to the discount they put on the phone when you sign up for a contract. The line looks pretty flat, and in fact through the middle of fiscal 2009 RIM's price per unit was very stable. Then in Q3, with the introduction of the new devices, RIM gets a temporary spike in revenue per unit. The new phones are selling at a premium. But that goes away in the next two quarters, and then about a year ago, RIM started cutting prices. Today the company gets about $50 less per unit than it usually did in the past.

When you assemble the big picture, it looks like this: To keep growing, RIM has been forced to reduce margins and prices. Despite the cuts, the rate of growth in subscribers appears to have flattened out. And more and more of the sales mix is going to existing users, or user replacement, rather than new users. RIM starts to look like a company that's working harder and harder just to stay in one place.

The picture gets more ominous when you look at some recent surveys of smartphone user satisfaction. In JD Power's 2010 smartphone satisfaction survey, BlackBerry finished near the bottom, with below average ratings in every category except battery life (link). Just three years earlier, as the iPhone was coming to market, BlackBerry had the highest satisfaction ratings in the industry (link). I don't love JD Power's methodology (for reasons that are too long to explain here), but no way should RIM's rating be declining like that.

The low satisfaction is starting to threaten RIM's future sales. In June of this year, Nielsen released some tidbits from a survey of the future purchasing plans of smartphone users (link):

OS Preferences of People Planning to Replace Their Smartphones

The chart shows US smartphone users who were thinking about buying a new device in Q1 of 2010. More than half of the BlackBerry users considering a new smartphone were leaning toward a different OS.

If I were working at RIM, that chart would scare the crap out of me.

The company is by no means dead, but the symptoms of a stalling platform are definitely there. If you work at RIM and are reading this, here's what I want you to understand: Your company's at risk. Your great financials mask that risk, and give you lots of logical-sounding reasons to avoid making the changes that need to be made. RIM is like a 53-year-old man who has high blood pressure and cholesterol but tells himself that he's OK because he can still run a half-marathon. You are indeed fine, right up until you have the heart attack. Then it's too late.

Here's what you need to do:

How to avoid the cliff

To keep a platform viable, you need to focus on two tasks: Keep the customer base loyal, and add adjacent product categories.

Keeping the base loyal. This is transcendently important to a platform company. As your market matures, more and more of your sales will come from replacement devices sold to the installed base. You'll also depend more and more on a base of developers who add value to your products. If you can keep these people happy, you'll have a steady stream of replacement sales that you can build on. It won't be enough to produce the growth that your investors want, but it'll be a great foundation.

On the other hand, if these customers and developers drift away, there's virtually no way you can grow something else fast enough to offset their loss. The trick here is that the supporter base for a computing platform is like a herd of cattle. They move as a group. When the herd is contented, it tends to stay in one place. But if the herd gets restless, even a small disturbance can cause a stampede in which they all run away at once.

For example, this is the factor that HP failed to consider when it bought Palm. The Pre's small base of users and developers was a classic group of restless cattle. When HP bought the company, the first priority should have been to calm those people by promising a renewed commitment to the Pre and follow-on products. Even if HP didn't see smartphones as its long-term future, it should have focused on keeping the developers and users loyal until it had something else for them to buy and develop for. Instead, HP CEO Mark Hurd more or less killed the product line a day after the purchase (link):

HP won't "spend billions of dollars trying to go into the smartphone business; that doesn’t in any way make any sense....We didn’t buy Palm to be in the smartphone business. And I tell people that, but it doesn’t seem to resonate well. We bought it for the IP."

Ooookay, so if you're a Pre customer, do you buy again? Do you tell your friends to buy? If you're a WebOS developer, do you keep writing code while you wait for HP to decide what it'll do with that "IP" it bought?

The answer is, you run for the exit as fast as you can. HP bought a company for a billion dollars and then immediately trashed it.

Back to RIM. Your cattle are restless. If you don't believe me, go look at that Nielsen chart again. Your goal is to keep the cattle content, by feeding them a steady diet of delightful new products that deepen their commitment to the platform. RIM's record in this area is very mixed. There have been a lot of new BlackBerry products announced in the last few years, but most of them seem to be focused on copying things Apple has done rather than finding new ways to delight BlackBerry customers.

Some of the Apple imitation is probably necessary. Apple has turned a lot of features into checkoff items that are now expected from any smartphone -- a better browser, for example. If RIM didn't eventually add those features, the herd would at some point stampede away for sure.

But what I haven't seen from RIM is a vision for deepening the special features that made people bond with BlackBerry in the first place. The personal communication functionality of BlackBerry is about the same now as it was five years ago. Why in God's name was Apple the first North American smartphone company to really push video calling? As the communication beast, RIM should have led that years ago.

Instead, the latest BlackBerry devices feel a bit like an overbuilt ice cream sundae -- the original BlackBerry functionality is at the base more or less unchanged, and a bunch of gooey media toppings have been dumped on top of it. I see sprinkles, fudge, marshmallow, pineapple, whipped cream, a cherry, and a few gummy bears, but no significant improvement to the old, dried-out ice cream at the bottom of the bowl.

Inevitably, RIM can't implement those new media toppings as cleanly and elegantly as Apple did, because its platform wasn't designed for that. So what you get is a BlackBerry that endorses Apple's design direction but fails to fully deliver on it. Maybe that helps keep some BlackBerry users from leaving instantly, but it doesn't give them a positive reason to stay. Rather than playing to win, RIM is playing not to lose, and doing it poorly.

This is especially scary because RIM depends much more than Apple on mobile operators to help drive demand for its products (if you're in the US, ask yourself how many Verizon and AT&T ads you have seen for BlackBerry, versus how many ads you've seen from RIM itself). The operators follow customer interest, they don't create it. If they get the sense that BlackBerry users want to switch, they will be only too happy to facilitate that switch -- especially since they don't have to share service revenue with Android vendors the way they do with RIM.

What RIM should do. RIM need a product vision identifying a few new differentiators for BlackBerry that will resonate well with the busy knowledge workers who are at the core of its installed base. There should be no more than three of these features (because customers can't remember more than three), and they should not be copies of things that Apple is already implementing. RIM should focus on building them deeply into the product, so they are very well integrated with the rest of the device. My nominees are meeting planning, conferencing, and live document sharing.

Other smartphone companies will eventually copy these features, so RIM needs to create a pipeline of development in which it'll bring out another 2-3 new differentiators every 24 months.

Adding adjacent categories. Settling down the installed base is not enough. It's an enormous task, but all it'll do is stabilize the business. It won't produce the growth that investors expect. To get that, RIM needs to eventually add new types of product that expand its market.

Apple is a master at this process. When Steve Jobs came back, Apple had only the Macintosh. It refreshed that product line, securing the customer base. Then it added the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Each of them targeted Apple's core market of creative, entertainment-loving people, and each of them leveraged Apple's existing software and hardware. This overlap made the new products relatively inexpensive to develop and market -- they could be sold to the same sorts of people, through the same channels, and they reused a lot of technology. Each new product line also tended to drag a few more customers back to the earlier products, so they reinforced each other.

These new products enabled Apple to grow its revenue rapidly without putting pressure on the Macintosh to carry the whole load. Apple could invest enough in the Mac to keep it a stable and very profitable business, while the new products produced the topline growth.

To understand how wickedly efficient Apple's business model is, take a glance at the R&D budgets of RIM and Apple.

Quarterly R&D Spending of Apple and RIM

R&D spending in most recent four quarters. Dollars in millions.

Although Apple has about three times the revenue, RIM's R&D spending is about two-thirds of Apple's. With just a third more money, Apple produces the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iTunes, App Store, custom microprocessors, and a suite of mobile services. RIM is producing a bunch of minute variations on a family of phones, an e-mail server, a new OS, and a suite of mobile services that also has to be individually interfaced to each operator. RIM puts much of its effort into infrastructure that has little or no impact on features that users can see and value.

Now RIM wants to add more product lines. Its first effort will be the PlayBook tablet in 2011. This will be a decisive test of RIM's ability to grow in the future, and so far the signs are worrisome. Unlike Apple's first announcement of the iPhone, the PlayBook announcement didn't show much functionality that looked fundamentally new compared to the competition (in fact, the interface looked to me a lot like a warmed-over version of Palm's WebOS). The pitch was almost all about enabling technology rather than user benefits. When you find yourself talking up the dual-core processor and symmetric multiprocessing in a consumer product, it's a sign of a serious lack of differentiation.

I'd be more hopeful about the prospects for the PlayBook if RIM had done a better job of evolving its BlackBerry products recently. Unfortunately, RIM's latest innovation flagship is the BlackBerry Torch, an overproduced heap of half-integrated features that ranks as one of the most disappointing mobile devices I've seen from a major manufacturer in years.

Yeah, I know there are some people who like the Torch. But there were also people who thought MS-DOS was easy to use.

Burned by the Torch. I recently bought a BlackBerry Torch for my wife, who needed a smartphone to manage work e-mail. We both wanted her to have something simple to use, with a keyboard that made her comfortable. She liked the Torch in the store, so we bought it for her.

The device was a usage nightmare. Even after years of working with touch screen technology, RIM hasn't managed to evolve its user interface to the point where the touch pad and the touch screen work together smoothly. Some functions are easier to perform on touch screen, and others are easier on touch pad, and so the whole interface feels muddled. But by far the more disappointing problem was that the huge number of new applications just added to the phone do not work together properly. I can't even list all of the problems we both had figuring out how to use them, but one vivid example should suffice. My wife entered a lot of contacts directly into the device's contacts app, but didn't bother to include the area code in the phone numbers. The BlackBerry didn't warn her about this.

Then she went to the messaging app and tried to send a text message to our daughter. When she tried to send the message, the app reported that it could not send to a contact without an area code. So she went back to the contacts app and added area codes.

Then she went back to the messaging app and again tried to send a text message. The messaging app reported once again that it could not send a message without an area code. It had apparently made a copy of the data from the contacts app when it was first used, and would not update the copy. So my wife then edited the contact information from within the contacts app (it lets you do that). But when she tried to save the updated contact, the phone responded that it could not accept external changes to the contacts, and deleted the change.

Next, she tried to send a message by typing our daughter's phone number, including area code, directly into the To: portion of a new message. When she tried to send that message, the messaging application did a lookup on its contacts database, changed the phone number back to the version without an area code, and then reported that it could not send the message because the phone number lacked an area code.

Using the BlackBerry Torch is like being trapped in a real-life version of "Waiting for Godot."

I've seen this sort of incoherent design before. It happens when you have several teams working on parts of the device, and you haven't done proper planning up front to make sure the apps will work together well. It is a symptom of an out-of-control development process. The fact that this happened on RIM's flagship product is deeply disturbing. If the same incompetent processes are applied to the PlayBook -- a much more complex product with a lot of new functionality -- it is almost certain to fail.

By the way, we returned the phone.

What RIM should do. To fix this problem, RIM needs to create rigorous up-front planning processes in its software team, with someone who has dictatorial power placed in charge of overall software integration for a device or OS release. Also, the product manager needs to be empowered (actually required) to delay shipment of a product if it's not right. I'm sure someone at RIM knew about the problems in the Torch. The fact that the company went ahead and shipped it is almost as disturbing as the problems themselves.

Rescuing RIM

To sum up, RIM is at risk because its natural market is saturating and many of its customers are considering a switch to other platforms. The company may be able to bumble along in this situation for years before the problem comes to a head, but once a migration away from BlackBerry starts it would be almost impossible to stop. So if the company wants to ensure its survival, it needs to act now. Two steps are needed:

--The BlackBerry line needs to be given a several fundamental, visionary innovations that will give its core customers a reason to stay; and

--The company needs to change its development process to guarantee proper design and integration in all of its products.

Given the time needed to create a new product, these changes will take at least 18 months to bear fruit, probably more like two years. During that time RIM will remain at risk of a platform collapse. What's worse, the company's engineers already have their hands full copying iPhone features, customizing phones for a huge range of operators, and simultaneously creating a new operating system and developing a new version of the current one. The sort of changes I'm suggesting would disrupt that work, forcing the cancellation of some projects and slips in the schedule for others. They would make the problem worse before they make it better. In the meantime, the company would lose serious revenue, and might even miss earnings projections for a quarter or two. The stock's value would be trashed, and there would be calls for firing management.

As the founders of the company, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis could probably pull this off without losing their jobs. And I know they have the courage to make big changes. But I doubt they can see the need, or especially the urgency. Their current processes and business practices got them to $15 billion in revenue; why should they change now? It's much more prudent to focus on making the numbers for next quarter.

That's probably just what RIM will do. And if it does, that's why the company will probably eventually fail.


[Edit: Since this post is still getting a lot of traffic, I wanted to let you know that I've posted a look at RIM's Q3 FY 2011 financials, with  updated charts and a deeper look at international sales.  I think the situation is both better and worse than I originally believed (link).  And you can see my take on their June 2011 layoff announcement here.]

Why did Apple give in?

I've rarely been so happy to be wrong as I was yesterday when I heard that Apple had relaxed some of the restrictions it puts on third party software apps for iOS. In case you somehow missed the news, iPhone and iPad apps can now be written in third party languages like Flash and Java. Apple also changed rules that would have made it difficult for outside advertising systems like Google's AdMob to insert ads in iOS apps.

I'd predicted a couple of months ago that Apple probably wouldn't give in on those terms, so it was a surprise -- but a very pleasant one, for a couple of reasons. First, and most important, I think it's good for app developers. The more ways they have to create apps, the more easily they can do business. But speaking as someone who's working on a startup, I was also personally pleased. We're doing a lot of development work in Java, and I'd been worried about the rework if we decided we needed a native client on iOS. Now the problem's solved (or at least it should be by the time we ship).

Although Flash and Java are getting all the attention in the press coverage, Apple's decision also has a huge effect on some smaller companies making development tools. For example, the folks at Runtime Revolution, who make one of my favorite prototyping tools, announced instantly that they'd be supporting iOS (link). And I'll be interested to see if the StyleTap Palm OS emulator will now be able to run on Apple devices that haven't been jailbroken.

This leaves us with the question of why Apple changed its policy. The Wall Street Journal speculated that Apple might have been trying to forestall legal action by the US government (link). The New York Times said it was a competitive response to Android's increasing momentum (link).

I wonder if Apple wasn't also influenced by the Library of Congress' recent ruling that phone companies can't use copyright law to prevent jailbreaking of phones (jailbreaking in this context permits a device to run applications that weren't approved by the manufacturer). Although jailbreaking is rare on iOS today, with the ruling companies were free to start promoting it. Apple may have felt that it was better to loosen up the rules of the App Store, rather than risk a lot of customers bypassing the store entirely.

They're all plausible explanations, and there's no reason why they couldn't all be correct. But I hope there's something deeper going on. As I've written before, when a company reaches a certain level of success, many of the business practices that were foundational to its growth can turn into liabilities. It's kind of like watching a kid grow up -- behavior that's understandable in a 10-year-old ("You got in a fight with Johnny? I'll get the Neosporin.") becomes antisocial in an adult ("You got in a fight with Johnny? You're under arrest.")

Apple has definitely reached that transition point. The aggressive business tactics that were acceptable for scrappy underdog Apple look like bullying and arrogance in industry leader Apple. Companies usually stumble on this transition, because their image of themselves doesn't change to match their altered role. When Microsoft hit it at the end of the 1990s, it responded with denial, aggressiveness, and defiance. The result was years of incredibly distracting litigation. The company has never been the same since.

Has Apple learned from Microsoft's lesson? Understanding Apple's internal decision-making is only slightly easier than understanding North Korea's, so we probably won't know for sure until years from now when somebody retires and writes a memoir. But I hope, for the sake of everyone in the Apple ecosystem, that this is the start of a kinder, gentler Apple.

Assuming it is, here are a few guidelines on how Apple the Leader should behave:

Aim to cripple, not kill. The old Apple routinely reached for the nuclear weapons when threatened by an outside firm. (Remember Power Computing? link) That was OK when Apple's own survival was at risk, but it's bad form for a company that's too big to fail. Instead, your goal is to damage your competitors to the point where they can't threaten your survival, but are still somewhat viable. Remember, dying competitors file antitrust suits; weak competitors are just whiners.

If you can't think of something nice to say about someone, lie. Apple has thrived on the drama of competition against the evil overlord (go rewatch the "1984" commercial if you want to understand how deeply this is a part of Apple's psyche). This confrontational style has seeped into public communications ranging from Apple's Mac vs. PC commercials to Apple's bitter statements about Adobe a couple of months ago. That all has to stop (and, interestingly, the Mac vs. PC ads already did). For a huge company like Apple, beating up on competitors makes you look like an arrogant bully. Repeat after me: "They're an impressive company, and we respect their accomplishments." It'll feel gross for a while, but you'll get used to it.

Pick your fights. Let go of issues that don't truly threaten your survival. Flash is a perfect example -- although in theory it's threatening, in practice Adobe has shown very little ability to turn it into a major cross-platform app environment. In fact, the whole Flash/Air thing was fading into obscurity until Apple gave it a big boost of publicity by attacking it. Hey, Apple -- you helped old, bureaucratic Adobe position itself as the spunky competitor against your Microsoftian monolith. Was that what you wanted?

The right way to contain the threat from platforms like Flash is to make sure Apple's own platform continues to innovate rapidly, and take better care of developers than anyone else.

Listen carefully. Because your instincts are tuned to the old rebel Apple, you're likely to mis-position yourself frequently while you learn the new rules. Admit to yourself that you have a problem, and manage it proactively. In the era of the Internet, there's no excuse for being blindsided by an issue. Right now you're putting out fires after they become obvious. If you listen carefully, you can respond to an issue before the firestorm builds up.

Occasionally admit you're wrong. People love a powerful person who's willing to admit being wrong. It makes you look humble. The same thing applies to companies. When you realize you need to back down on an issue, don't try to hide the fact. Tell people you listened to them and decided you were wrong. You got halfway there in the statement about the App Store changes: "We have listened to our developers and taken much of their feedback to heart." You should lose the phrase "much of" because it reads as a cheap shot; it implies that some of the things developers said were not worth paying attention to. And what I don't hear yet is the second most difficult three-word phrase to say in the English language: "We were wrong."

It's possible to overdo this sort of thing, of course. You shouldn't be backing down in public more than about twice a year, or you'll look indecisive. Between the store and the iPhone antenna thing, you've now used your quota for 2010. So keep your nose clean for the rest of the year.

Stay on offense. The key to the long-term survival of Apple is innovation and creating new product categories. Once you've stopped thrashing over distractions like antennas and store terms (not to mention federal lawsuits), you can focus more time on creating the next generation iPad, and developing new category products like Apple TV. Those are the things that really matter for your future. The more time you spend on them, the better Apple's prospects. By letting go of your underdog baggage, you give yourself the freedom to make those future products great.