Why Tuesday’s Speech To The Mobile World Is The Most Vital In RIM’s History

Dear Research in Motion (NSDQ: RIMM) co-CEO Mike Lazaridis:

Yeah, I know, it’s another gimmicky open letter to a CEO. There seemed no better way, however, to urge you to treat your Tuesday morning keynote address to the BlackBerry Developers Conference as the most important public appearance in the history of your company.

Never before has confidence in RIM been this low. We’ve covered at length the problems that accompanied your early-2011 realization that your hardware road map was on the wrong course, leading to delays in the launch of the BlackBerry 7 handsets. And it’s clear that those handsets are still not generating near the levels of interest that consumers are showing in the iPhone and several new Android phones launched this year.

That’s bad enough. But over the last week RIM seemed to throw away its one remaining advantage: the reliability and security of its network. Regardless of what caused the days-long BlackBerry outage, which one financial analyst called the worst outage in the history of your service, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the company.

Millions of people bought an iPhone 4S this week, and there were enough anecdotal reports of frustrated BlackBerry users trading in their devices for iPhones to sit up and take notice: if RIM doesn’t do something to revive the strong brand name it once enjoyed, a generation of smartphone shoppers will write off the company.

And as they go, so go the developers you’ll be addressing Tuesday. That’s why you need to treat this address like you’re fighting for your company’s life, because in a way, you are.

You need to explain exactly how and exactly when RIM plans to transition from the BlackBerry OS to the QNX OS on its flagship smartphones. You need to convince developers that you finally understand the need to offer them world-class development tools and resources. You need to show both developers and consumers that you’ve learned the lessons of how to develop next-generation user interfaces on small screens.

These developers are already starting to wonder why they need you anymore. Each month the BlackBerry loses ground in the U.S. to the iPhone and Android, and if you don’t give them a reason to think that you have a plan to revive interest in the BlackBerry among CIOs and soccer moms alike, their incentive to stay with you ebbs by the month.

We’ve looked at how Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) faces similar changes in trying to adapt to a world that passed it by, but Microsoft has at least begun to articulate a vision for mobile software development that resonates. An awful lot needs to happen before Microsoft regains its mojo, but it has at least succeeded in piquing interest in what lies ahead.

RIM has yet to do that. QNX brings some interesting things to the table, but the first QNX device released by RIM, the Playbook, has been a disaster. It’s the second-worst mobile product launch of 2011 thanks only to the bizarre August that Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HPQ) orchestrated for WebOS and the TouchPad, and it has failed to capture the attention of anyone even remotely interested in technology.

If QNX is RIM’s horse to this new era of mobile software, you need to outline why the world should care in a manner that contains more substance than usually allowed by RIM’s legal and marketing departments. At the same time, you need to reassure your most loyal customers that RIM will continue to deliver a quality service that no other mobile company can hope to duplicate. That starts with being honest about the opportunities that have been missed and being clear what lessons RIM has learned.

There are two things you can no longer do: hide behind the type of jargon marketing-speak that had many wondering if you had lost your mind last December at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference, and hold back details about the plan to get QNX onto the BlackBerry. Should you once again deliver that type of address, several thousand people will walk out of the Marriott Marquis Tuesday morning shaking their heads and wondering how long the line is at the Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) Store just across the street.

But something got me thinking: your decision to identify yourself in the mea-culpa video for the recent outage as “founder of Research in Motion” is quite curious given that while that’s certainly true, you’re really one half of the two-man leadership team that includes your longtime colleague Jim Balsillie. Why would you not mention that you’re the boss? Have you reached a point where you’re prepared to seize control of the pioneering company you founded as a grad student all for yourself? Or have you been demoted to some sort of technology-oriented role while Balsillie continues to make the sales calls?

In other words, has RIM finally figured out what to do about its dysfunctional dual-headed management structure that you and Balsillie argued so defiantly earlier this year was best for the company and “fun” at the same time you prepared to lay off thousands amid a shareholder revolt? If so, that’s maybe the one thing that you could announce Tuesday that would get people talking, because the cloud over RIM is about more than software development: it’s about people, too.

If you’re at all determined to ensure that RIM stays afloat in the coming decade, please don’t miss this opportunity. Because a few hours after you speak Apple is going to release its first earnings report card since the death of Steve Jobs, and if you fail to capture the spotlight going into that afternoon, you may never get it back.


Tom Krazit
Mobile Editor