What on Earth Happened to BlackBerry?

Research in Motion’s new tablet is a misguided mess.

First, a confession: I haven’t used the BlackBerry PlayBook yet. The seven-inch tablet computer is scheduled to go on sale next week, and I hope to get my hands on one soon. This, then, is not a product review. It’s more like a eulogy, or perhaps an autopsy, for a company circling the drain. Reviewers who have gotten early access to the PlayBook have been almost universally puzzled by how half-baked it is. In its current form, the PlayBook doesn’t include any apps to access your email, calendar and address book. To get those things, you’ve got to have a BlackBerry phone, too. The PlayBook pairs with the phone, and gives you access to the phone’s e-mail, calendar, and address book. Does this sound insane? It is. The PlayBook doesn’t have many other apps, either. And even a few days before launch, the company is still making frequent, major updates to the tablet’s software.

What’s going on—how did BlackBerry, a brand that was the ne plus ultra of the mobile world just a few years ago, fall so swiftly? Although RIM is still selling lots of phones, several of its latest products have been panned, and its share of the smartphone market has been slipping. More importantly, the company’s leaders—it has two CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis—have been comically incoherent about their plans for the future. “We’ve taken two fundamentally different approaches in their causalness. It’s a causal difference, not just nuance,” Balsillie told Bloomberg BusinessWeek last year, explaining—I think—what makes RIM distinct. Laziridis, meanwhile, offered such a rambling discourse at a recent industry conference that several live-blogs of the event include phrases like, “Sorry, can’t follow what he’s saying” and “He isn’t making any sense at all. Quite literally, we don’t know what Mike is talking about right now.”

The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be. It made its fortune selling gadgets to chief information officers—IT guys who wanted to give their employees access to office e-mail on the go, but only in a way that accorded with corporate security policies. When they talk about RIM’s strengths, the company’s leaders like to point to their “CIO friendliness.” The trouble is, being friendly with CIOs doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Nowadays people don’t ask the tech guy which mobile gadgets pass muster. Instead, tech guys look to employees to decide which gadgets to support. RIM’s strategy—to infiltrate companies as a first step to becoming a mass-market hit—has been eclipsed by the Apple approach, which is to infiltrate schools and homes, and then hope that regular people nag their IT guys to let them use iPads at work, too.

RIM knows this, of course. Lazaridis and Balsillie are constantly declaring that BlackBerry has “crossed over” from being an at-work gadget to an at-home gadget. That’s presumably why they called the new tablet the PlayBook—see, it’s not just for serious stuff, it’s for fun! But their words don’t match their actions. RIM wants to be a consumer company because that’s where the money is, but it can’t risk alienating the IT guys who are its most loyal customers. That explains the PlayBook’s flaws, and, more generally, RIM’s failure to build products that most people want to use. RIM has cast its lot with CIOs, and CIOs just aren’t cool.

Consider the theory behind BlackBerry Bridge, the PlayBook’s strange way of pairing with a BlackBerry phone. Why would any company invent such a roundabout, user-unfriendly way to check email or update your calendar? It’s all about the IT department. “I talk to CIOs every day and they’re sweating this issue,” Balsillie told Bloomberg on Friday. Companies, he says, want “consumer innovative stuff,” but they also want “enterprise-grade standards of security, reliability, manageability, and scalability.” In particular, they don’t want corporate data to live on devices that are beyond their control. Bridge solves that problem—the data lives in a BlackBerry phone, which IT guys can control, while the PlayBook only gets to peek at the data when it’s nearby. “The people who are in charge of security in enterprises can sleep at night using a BlackBerry,” Balsillie added.

RIM must know that the Bridge is not ideal—it is planning to release dedicated productivity apps for the PlayBook soon, it says—but the company should never have released a tablet that didn’t come out of the box with a built-in email app. For many people, such a device is essentially worthless. But to hear RIM’s management discuss the subject, very few people will be inconvenienced by the tradeoffs that it made in the name of security. People who rely on webmail clients like Gmail can always use the PlayBook’s Web browser to get online, Balsillie told Bloomberg, so local data access “isn’t a core element that we’ve seen [requested] from our enterprise customers.” Huh? What if—to take the most straightforward example—your BlackBerry phone dies and you need to get someone’s address on your PlayBook? As Gizmodo points out, “you’re hosed.” 

The bigger problem is RIM’s apparent belief that the only way to make a secure device was to make an unfriendly device. Both the iPad and Android tablets offer various methods for companies to keep their data safe, and neither does so at the cost of usability. Many companies have been satisfied with the security of those devices. Indeed, even the most security-conscious industries—like health care and financial and legal services—have been keen to adopt Apple’s tablet.

Still, I’m willing to bet that several IT guys will bombard the comments below to tell me all the ways that consumer tablets like the iPad don’t hold up to the kind of “enterprise-grade standards of security” that CIOs expect. They could be right, too. But if it’s true, as RIM insists, that Apple falls short of many IT department’s security requirements, the proper way to address that failing isn’t to build a tablet that nobody will want to buy. Most early adopters of tablet computers care about usability and fun first, with security falling somewhere well down the list of desired attributes. How will people react to a device that forces us to jump through hoops to perform ordinary tasks? Simple: They’ll go to the Apple store.