About a week and a half ago, the relationship I was in came to an end. She and I lived in a small apartment together, so sticking around didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I’ve been living off my friends’ generosity since then.
I’ve been back to that apartment twice now to pick up some essentials (read: clean clothes) to keep me going for the next little while. My ex wasn’t there. On the second visit, it struck me that both nothing and everything had changed.
On the one hand, it looked as though nobody lived there anymore. The television remote had moved, and her favourite record was now sitting on the turntable. She made the bed for the first time in a long time. But everything else was the same, right down to a few lone beard trimmings around the bathroom sink that always seemed to avoid my attempts at cleaning.
And yet, this isn’t home for me anymore. It doesn’t feel right. It’s no longer the place where I can retreat from the world when I need to switch into Introvert Mode, or simply relax after a long day. That sense of security, familiarity, belonging, love and trust disappeared overnight. It’s just a space like any other. A shell of its former self.
It has never been so powerfully apparent to me that home is a feeling, not a place.
Upon re-reading Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ blog post about splitting off their physical disc rental business into a separate company called Qwikster, I was struck by a sentence and how it applies to so many tech companies:
Most companies that are great at something –- like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores -– do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.
Two companies came to mind when reading this: Microsoft and RIM. The former is ironic given that Reed Hastings is on the board. The latter is the one I’m really interested in talking about given the company’s growing list of disappointing news and announcements over the past year.
At the heart of RIM’s problem is what Hastings is referring to in his post. It’s the concept of disruptive innovation. The idea that markets aren’t won or lost over slow iterations of existing products with the same value proposition. Apple, for instance, never could and likely won’t ever be able to win the PC business as it stands. But they recognized this and understood they don’t have to. The PC industry has been in accelerating decline for the past decade,1 and Apple smartly chose to position itself for dominance in the post-PC era.
They did this through a series of disruptive innovations that nobody has been able to match: iPod, iPhone, iPad. And they are no doubt already thinking about the next one, because the iPhone decade will eventually come to an end. As Horace Dediu pointed out on a recent episode of his outstanding podcast, The Critical Path, each of these products flowed from a new input mechanism (scroll wheel, touch) which in turn required a new ecosystem and market strategy.
This brings us back to RIM, the once-darling of Canadian tech innovation that I’m still hoping can return to its glory days. Looking back at the Blackberrys that existed in 2005, and comparing them with the Blackberrys of today, I find few substantial differences. Sure, the screens are better, they’re faster, have nicer graphics, and have a few new bells and whistles. But, fundamentally, these are the same enterprise-focused devices that once attracted IT pros to the platform.
Since then, the iPhone emerged and dramatically disrupted the market, and the modern Android platform was born in response to it. The BlackBerry has continued to chart a conservative path with the same platform and same fundamental assumptions about market access, the required ecosystem, and its consumers. In the process, RIM’s leadership seems to have been surprised to wake up one day and discover their devices were no longer inspiring the hearts and minds of those who once carried a BlackBerry on their hip.
That’s not to mention the iPad, and RIM’s subsequent distraction and failed attempt at responding to it. The PlayBook was dead in the water on launch and likely can’t be saved with slow iteration. They only sold 200,000 devices this quarter, and are already trying to bolster demand by slashing prices. This is a race to the bottom that will do nothing but continue to hurt the company.
Shortly before the PlayBook was released, I speculated in conversations with friends that RIM needed to bank the company on this device. I think they did just that, but never realized they were doing it. Unfortunately, the device wasn’t the right one to make such a gamble on.
Now it seems like QNX-powered BlackBerries may be their last ditch attempt. And it sounds like there will continue to be a concurrent lineup of existing BlackBerry OS devices and newer QNX-powered devices — no doubt creating confusion in the marketplace.
Just like Henry Ford didn’t try to sell his customers a faster horse, Apple didn’t become the most valuable company in the world by building faster Macs. They made minor gambles and released three key products over a decade that disrupted existing markets and paved the way for new ones they could own. RIM should take a lesson from Apple’s playbook2 and focus on new product offerings, with entirely new value propositions that play to their strengths.
The path of playing catch-up with Apple’s four-year-old innovations can only lead to failure. Reed Hastings is right. RIM is only just realizing the errors of its strategy, and can’t move fast enough to save itself.