Will (or Can) RIM Take the Road IBM Once Traveled?

The big news in the mobile space this morning is that RIM is thinking about expanding its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service to Android and iOS platforms. It’s not confirmed, but BGR reports that it’s hearing the same thing from multiple, dependable sources. Why would RIM (s rimm) give away the biggest draw to its hardware platform? Maybe because it finally realized hardware isn’t where its strengths lie.

RIM has been keen to point to BBM as a key advantage its BlackBerry smartphones have over the competition. It provides direct, instant, device-to-device communications between BlackBerry handsets. And BBM isn’t any old messaging app. It also provides status updates, unlimited character length, display pictures, delivery and read confirmation, the ability to share videos and pics and group messaging. No other mobile platform has a similar native offering, so RIM is right to trumpet it as a major advantage. Which is why it seems counterintuitive that RIM would want to make the feature available to competing platforms, even if it only offers a stripped-down version.

But RIM must realize that its role in the mobile hardware game is in serious danger of being eclipsed by competitors such as Apple and Google, who appear to be much more adept at keeping up with technological advances and user experience improvements. Compared to the flood of new Android (s goog) hardware hitting the market on a pretty much constant basis from manufacturers like Samsung and HTC, Apple’s (s aapl) once-yearly update that never fails to impress, and even the looming specter of a Nokia(s nok) and Windows Phone 7 (s msft) partnership, BlackBerry devices and the operating system that powers them seems old and busted. If true, a move to open up BBM may be a sign that RIM realizes its strengths now lie in its network and in providing back-end services to enterprise users, and not in making phones, at least not anymore.

RIM is also experimenting with running Android software on its devices, according to at least one app developer and sources within the company. If you ask me, this is one part vain attempt to grasp at some shred of relevance for its hardware arm, the success of which depends largely on the success of the PlayBook tablet, and one part effort to explore cross-platform integration in the new mobile landscape. QNX still has plenty of promise, especially in the enterprise space, and RIM could easily continue its development even in a post-hardware phase. Providing enterprise-friendly stability with access to Google’s stable of apps would surely attract device-making partners.

IBM (s ibm) once faced a similar watershed moment, and it seems somewhat prescient that it chose to get out of the PC hardware game when it did, and into providing enterprise IT services instead. RIM’s actions of late suggest that it could follow a similar trajectory, but would even that be enough?

Unlike IBM’s switch, were RIM to do the same, it could hardly be called prescient. The BlackBerry brand has been experiencing a steady decline for years now, first in the eyes of the tech elite, and later in the eyes of consumers, too. Asking any BlackBerry user; it was easy to glean that the company’s real strength lay in its network and BlackBerry server.

There’s still value in those aspects of RIM’s business, but not so much as there was before, since competitors have been cropping up while RIM tried to bail out the sinking BlackBerry ship. BBM has lost its original lustre in the face of competitors like Kik (which it tried clumsily to block), and with Facebook poised to get in on the group messaging game, the space is about to get quite crowded.

At this point, it looks like a shift in focus to software and services might be RIM’s best option, but that doesn’t mean it’s an option that will necessarily succeed. IBM jumped early and with purpose, but RIM is moving late and out of desperation. We’ll see how much that affects the end result.

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