RIM’s struggles a sad sight for fans

Corporations allowing customers to choose their own mobile devices are a major ill facing RIM. But don't count the BlackBerry out just yet, Dianne Buckner says.

I was sorry to see that Australia’s Qantas Airlines is the latest large company to switch its corporate smartphone plan from RIM BlackBerrys to iPhones.

The airline surveyed the 1,300 employees who use company-purchased devices. The majority voted to dump Canada’s former tech superstar. Analysts call it the "bring your own device" phenomenon.

Enterprise clients, which is what Research in Motion calls the corporate customers who have long been its major source of revenue, are allowing staff to BYOD or even choose their own device, the way Qantas did. It’s one of the major reasons RIM is losing market share, dragging the stock price down alongside.

Full disclosure: my employer supplies Blackberries to staff who need them, myself included, and I am completely happy about that. I do not lust for an iPhone, despite having listened to numerous friends and colleagues rhapsodize about the fabulous apps it offers.

Like so many others, I prefer a physical keyboard where I can use both thumbs to tap out messages quickly. The idea of poking at a touch-screen like a robin hunting for worms just doesn’t seem efficient or appealing to me. And I question whether the iPhone really is superior for business uses.

Here’s a sampling of comments I received when I tweeted that question:

RIM is down, but not out, Dianne Buckner writes. (Ruby Buiza/CBC)

"I still use my BB, mostly because it does what I want it to do all the time. Reliable counts in my books." — Janet Auty-Carlisle, Living La Vida Fearless Coaching Services, Barrie Ontario,

"Continue to be a big fan of BBerry Bold. Robust, easy to use, great to type on AND Canadian (everything else we have is Mac)" — Don R. Campbell , real estate investor, author, educator, Real Estate Investment Network, Vancouver

"I still have my BlackBerry. Can't get past the keypad instead of touch screen. I am possibly holding off for the new BB" —Lawrence Poole, Jungle Jim’s franchisee, Grand Falls Windsor

There are dissenters of course. Here’s one of those:

"No way to the BB! I can take credit card payments with my iPhone for my home based business. Beat that, BlackBerry!!!" — Trina G of Calgary.

You’re right Trina, processing payments is indeed a pretty fantastic business application. I don’t doubt for a minute that the iPhone has a lot to offer entrepreneurs.

Not long ago the manager of a Manitoba radio station told me he switched everyone on his team over to the iPhone, because reporters can use the device to record interviews and reports in the field, and then e-mail them in for broadcast. Now that’s efficiency.

'I would love to see RIM pull this out of the fire'—Dianne Buckner

But it seems to me that the dramatic collapse of BlackBerry’s reputation and market capitalization is somewhat of an over-reaction. Sure, Samsung and Apple have innovated and surpassed Waterloo Ontario’s pride and joy, and perhaps RIM’s leadership took their eyes off the ball, as many have suggested.

Even so, is a company with 77 million users worldwide and $2.2 billion in cash on hand really a dog?

It’s RIM’s lack of growth that’s the problem.

There’s something in the business world called "the growth imperative." The Cambridge Journal of Economics defines it this way: "A capitalist firm operating in a competitive market is subject to a growth imperative, because uncertainty about the profit rate under a no-growth policy makes the firm's prospects highly unattractive in finite time and bankruptcy practically certain in the long run."

In other words, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. The same principle is behind the horror when China’s growth rate dips to 7.6 per cent, as it did in the most recent quarter. Considering that most developed nations, including Canada, are in the two per cent range, surely an economy growing at close to eight per cent is booming!

But no, apparently even a slowing of growth is a cause for concern amongst those who subscribe to the growth imperative. World leaders, economists and China itself have been fretting that with a growth rate of less than eight per cent, this throbbing economic engine is cooling.

The Chinese government has even introduced stimulus measures to remedy the situation. For RIM and for China as well, the real worry is what’s behind flagging growth — and what it means for the future.

"I like to believe that a national company like RIM will go through an evolution, the way Hewlett-Packard and IBM did in the States," says Steve Bentley, a Kitchener-based financial planner. "I have a strong belief they’ll be able to right the ship." Bentley is a BlackBerry loyalist.

He loves the enterprise server aspect of the device, since it allows people in his office to update their calendars and make changes while keeping everyone instantaneously in the loop. He finds all the Blackberry’s functional tools useful, and like me, prefers a physical keyboard.

But some say the all-important BlackBerry 10 – the new model that management touts as the lynchpin to its turnaround strategy that’s been delayed into 2013 – won’t have a physical keyboard, at least for the first version.

No! Say it ain’t so! And living close to RIM’s headquarters, Steve Bentley actually hears people say it ain’t so. "There are all kinds of rumours flying in Waterloo," he says. "Most people believe the new model will have both a touch-screen and a physical keyboard."

Research In Motion has clearly made a series of missteps, but surely no one in power there is unaware of their product’s unique advantage. Only an R&D department with a death wish would do away the feature that inspires loyalty.

Like Bentley, I would love to see RIM pull this out of the fire. Part of that hope is because of my own personal background. My father spent his career at Bell Canada. As a reporter at Venture, I covered the Nortel saga, watching that proud Canadian success story wind down into bankruptcy and scandal.

I feel a connection (no pun intended) with telecom stories — and of course, the telephone’s inventor Alexander Graham Bell is Canadian! There is some national pride mixed into all of this for me.

I heard a similar sentiment in an e-mail from David MacDonald of Toronto, after my tweet: "I'm proud that BlackBerry (RIM) is a Canadian company, and with me being a Canadian, I want to support them. I think RIM is a fantastic company, and I'm saddened to see that their stocks are trading so low. I will continue to use my BlackBerry 9900 and BlackBerry Playbook until they come out with newer and better devices. Long live BlackBerry!"

Of course nationalism really doesn’t count that way dollars and cents do. And most business owners, large and small, make their choices on realities, not sentiment. But almighty Apple, maker of the iPhone, had its own hard times in the 1990s, and managed to return to glory. There’s still a chance RIM’s story could follow a similar path.


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.