Debate: RIM is still near the rocks, but it's now heading in the right direction
When it comes to talking about troubled companies, nautical metaphors are always popular.
Stormy seas, ship of fools, rats leaving a sinking ship, sailing too close to the reef, heading for the breakers' yard etc etc. And given RIM's performance over the past couple of years, perhaps many of these are justified.
The irony of the situation, however, is that - to use another metaphor - the oil tanker has been turned. Whether it's too close to the rocks to sail off into a sunset ... it's too soon to tell.
Yet to continue to beat up on RIM for past mistakes, indeed, the mistake of past captains, is lazy journalism. What's more significant is to consider how the company will compete in the smartphone market following the launch of BlackBerry 10.
Of course, with only slim amounts of information publicly currently available about the OS, and practically nothing about devices, this requires some conjecture.
What we have seen of the OS to-date can be gained from various recent enhancements to its precursor - the solid BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet OS - and some sneak peaks from BlackBerry World 2012. These are interesting, but hardly conclusive. What is more positive generally is that the OS is the work of Swedish user experience company The Astonishing Tribe, which RIM bought in late 2010.
One of the best UI and UX companies in the world, personally I don't have much doubt that BlackBerry 10 will impress, even assuming Apple throws something new into the mix with iOS 6.
Because for Apple, iOS isn't broke so it's not going to be radically fixing it. Apple's more about supply chains and cutting edge hardware than back when Steve Jobs' fascination with calligraphy resulted in Postscript, anyhow.
Looking at other competitors, Android devices are burdened by OEMs layering on their own crap, while Samsung is becoming its own vertical in the market. There are plenty of Android users who will be trying out other phones and OSes in the coming years. And there's Windows Phone and its Live Tiles. Perhaps the nicest thing you can say is that it's very different (and that Nokia's devices are nice, if not yet selling).
If nothing else, RIM is in a better position than Nokia.
It's about time
But the fact is, there's a big gap in the smartphone market when it comes to doing something new in terms of mobile interface, and RIM - with its TaT and QNX acquisitions now has two the most impressive outfits when it comes to user experience design and robust real-time operating systems.
So no, I don't think RIM has much to worry about terms of the fundamentals (OS and devices) when it comes to BlackBerry 10. The one thing RIM doesn't have much of is time.
Its share price is nailed to an almost decade-old low, it's now making quarterly losses, it doesn't have much cash ($2.1 billion), and its market cap is pretty much less than the value of the constituent parts.
Best of the bad
There's no question this is a very dangerous situation for CEO Thorstein Heins, which is why he's shedding staff and looking to make $1 billion a year in efficiency savings.
Aside from this, he has to deal with shareholders who would like to break up the company, the consultants he's employing might advise him to break up the company, or RIM might plain run out of cash before it can bring BlackBerry 10 into the 2012 holiday season. These are significant issues.
But the plain truth is that there's nothing else RIM can do.
Its continued strength in terms of enterprise solutions, security and communications (especially in terms of hardware keyboards and BBM), are not enough to keep it afloat longterm. Perhaps it could roll up into a defensive ball, but that's just delaying the inevitable.
Yes, these service are core to RIM's future success but only when combined with new touchscreen form factors, a robust development platform for apps and games, and a secure app store, with operator billing.
RIM has all these pieces in place, although its position in many pockets and handbags as a secondary device (i.e. business device) to a personal device (typically iPhone) is certainly a worry, as is the fact that BlackBerry ownership has been so quickly and heavily reduced in the key North American market. High usage rates in Latin America, the Middle East and India do not compensate.
The up side
Yet for those willing to take the risk, RIM is now classic case of fundamentals investing - buy low, sell high.
The company can't really go any lower in terms of share price, and a successful BlackBerry 10 launch could easily trigger a strong rebound.
Certainly, one way of the other, BlackBerry 10's launch (likely in September) is of fundamental importance.
If the public's reaction is as muted as the launch of Nokia's Windows Phones in 2011, RIM will almost certainly be broken up in 2013.
Yet, unlike Nokia - another one-time leader going through troubled times and which contains multiple divisions: telecom infrastructure, navigation and hardware - RIM still has the potential for massive synergies in terms of its security and infrastructure parts, its messaging and hardware expertise - people do like physical keyboards - as well as the shot of true blood into the system that is the new operating system and development platform.
Talk to any developer who's worked on PlayBook or BB 10, and they may not think RIM is long for this world, but they won't demean the tools or the compliance to standards such as C++ and OpenGL.
The sticking point
To address another point, should game developers support RIM and BlackBerry 10?
Well, that's up to their individual business models. Certainly, no one's going to lead on BB 10, but the ease of porting existing games means Gameloft has committed to 11 launch titles, while EA Mobile has generated multiple millions of dollars of revenue during 2012 from sales of the $10 PlayBook version of Dead Space.
The worst of times, the best of times then.
Is RIM in trouble? Yes. Is RIM dead? No.
Perhaps like Schrödinger's cat, it currently sits in a state of inbetweeness. Unless the news before BlackBerry 10's is terrible, it seems likely that CEO Heins will be given until the end of 2012 to prove his turnaround plan is working.
After all, the pain for shareholders has already been meted out. For the company and its employees, however, it's now a case of success or bust.
Be sure to read the other side of our BlackBerry debate!