RIM, RIP: How BlackBerry Lost its Way, and How iPhones and iPads are Tapping to Success

Broadband Data, Broadband's Impact, Expert Opinion, Media, The Innovation Economy, Wireless April 2nd, 2012

, Publisher, BroadbandBreakfast.com

April 2, 2012 – I admit to being taken in yesterday by Google’s April Fools prank – Gmail Tap. This priceless video promises to bring Morse code back for the smart phone era.

Gmail Tap hit a powerful nerve: how to make smart phones more useful for the things we do besides talking on them.

“Think of the size of the device…, and we are trying to cram an entire 26-key keyboard into that space,” said “David Brook,” listed as VP, Communications Services for Google. “It’s so many keys. I feel constricted by the keyboard,” says “Beth Dunning,” listed as Engineer, Gmail Tap.

Well, Morse code may be too far of a stretch. (“It’s just a dot and a dash. What’s simpler than that,” says “Mitch Fedenko” of the Tap team.) But the concept is a testament to the spirit of constant innovation in order to use technology to make our lives simpler.

Indeed, Gmail Tap is the perfect foil for the problem now faced by Blackberry manufacturer Research in Motion. The lead story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal described the scale of the problem faced by the Canadian company RIM – with sales tumbling 25 percent in the last quarter, long-overdue devices now further delayed, and corporate customers beginning switch accounts to iPhones and Android devices.

It’s time to let RIM to Rest in Peace – but not before we can learn some lessons about its saga.

The ‘Crackberry’ Did One Thing Right

For many years of the past decade, I was one of many “Crackberry” users who loved the device for what it did right: e-mail. Blackberrys once weren’t even telephones. They were merely portable e-mail retrieval systems. And they weren’t just for enterprise users: I bought my first Blackberry for personal use, never synchronizing it to a Microsoft Exchange Server.

By 2006, Blackberry worked seamlessly with Gmail: was a good app. Because I could use it with my wireless provider at the time, I happily upgraded to the Blackberry World Phone. While I never found the web browsing experience entirely satisfactory, the Blackberry met most of my needs: email, robust contact management, a decent interface for mobile maps, one of the earliest Twitter Apps, and the ability to talk wirelessly.

Here’s where the Morse code joke comes in: I didn’t find the keyboard constricting. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have “fat fingers” (watch the Gmail tap video, ;->), but typing quick messages on my Blackberry was about as good as e-mail could get, I thought.

Rely on Other Companies to Do Their Part

We all know that the iPhone – which is less than five years old, having been released on June 29, 2007 – changed so much in mobile computing and connectivity. Not the least was the savior-faire that it brought to what we now know of as the App economy. But because the iPhone was restricted to the AT&T network, Apple forced users to choice between device and network.

This tension was captured by the difference between Apple’s slogan, “there’s an app for that,” and a short-lived counter-punch from Verizon Wireless: “there’s a map that that.” Verizon was referring to maps of its extensive wireless network.

As Apple maneuvered out of its exclusivity contract with AT&T, the iPhone has become ingrained into America’s psyche as the premier smart phone, a class-busting phenom that appeals to the elite and to the masses. I find it hard to say which one thing the iPhone does right – because of the elegant way in which it puts so many disparate things together. But Apple needed to break out a single-carrier deal.

Nearly 18 months after I began using my first iPhone, I now prefer the one thing I didn’t like about it –Apple cramming in an entire 26-key keyboard into a tiny, virtual space. I can type faster and more pleasurable on the iPhone 4 than on my late-model and last-legged Blackberry Curve.

Discover New Needs

The personal computer emerged victorious over specific purpose instruments because of its flexible platform for innovation. The PC can do a lot of things – but can it do any of them well?

I’ve written frequently about how telephone, computers, radios and televisions are no longer separate objects. They are all central processing units, with radio-frequency communications capabilities – but with different “form factors” for input and output.

The ever-so-slight ways in which our preferences evolve – beveled keyboard or touch-screen device – shift market power among the equipment-makers. The same goes for the alliances between CPU-makers and network operators. Apple can sell more iPhones if it works with more wireless companies.

This past Christmas, I briefly considered ditching by Sprint-network Blackberry for an Android device running on Verizon or Sprint. (My iPhone is on AT&T’s network, the only one available at the time of purchase.) Nothing grabbed me.

Then, less than a month ago, the iPad 3 came along. It was Apple’s first device that can access broadband through Verizon’s LTE (for Long Term Evolution) network. The speed results are astounding. In a head-to-head comparison test using the Federal Communications Commission’s mobile broadband test on March 16, the Verizon LTE iPad yielded 13.38 megabits download, and 13.26 megabits upload; while the AT&T iPhone yielded 0.70 megabits download, and 0.51 megabits upload.

Speeds and coverage areas of networks are constantly changing, so these results are no more than a snapshot in time. But in partnering with the best wireless providers, Apple opens new opportunities for consumer use of its device.

Much has and will be written about the new iPad as more consumers get their hands on it. My first impression is similar to many others: a gorgeous reading machine, which will be a killer-app for newspapers, magazines and books. At its heart, the iPad appears to be nothing more than an oversized iPhone, so why would anyone want both? For the same reason that consumers want a small screen for “everywhere” tasks, a bigger screen on a laptop computer for “work” tasks, and a super-big screen for a home theater television “entertainment.”

The new iPad is striking the next balance between the three screens. In doing so, it’s putting a screen on another industry that once had a dim future of its own: the newspaper business.

Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club, the premier Washington forum advancing the conversation around broadband technology and internet policy. You can find him on and Twitter. He founded BroadbandCensus.com, and he brings experts and practicioners together to advance Better Broadband, Better Lives. He’s doing that now as Executive Director for Broadband Illinois, based in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield.

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