If you think you had a crazy year, put yourself in Thorsten Heins’ shoes. The CEO of Research in Motion was dropped into the middle of a “crisis” (his word) in January when he assumed control of one of the pioneering mobile companies of our time in the midst of a downward spiral. He was immediately presented with plunging sales, consumer and press apathy, and the need to remake a company that was terrified of making a decision unless 24 people agreed on a direction.
As the year winds down, Heins is feeling better. “It’s fascinating to see how RIM has evolved in the last 10 months,” he said in an interview Thursday in downtown San Francisco.
BlackBerry 10 handsets, delayed several times already as RIM tries to perfect the device that will have to save the company, are on track for a January launch. New, decisive leaders are in place throughout the organization who are “being honest” with employees — a new concept at RIM — and a semblance of a plan for 2013 has emerged that banks on Heins’ belief that wireless carriers are sick of Apple and Samsung dominating the smartphone market.
RIM hopes to keep up its strong but low-margin performance in countries outside the U.S., regain the confidence of the US smartphone buyer with the BlackBerry 10 handsets, and eventually transition into a true “mobile computing” company that offers phones, tablets, medical devices, connected cars, and all manner of smart connected devices we commonly refer to as the internet of things.
It sounds good on paper. But the challenges are mighty: even assuming that RIM launches BlackBerry 10 handsets without incident in early February and they are well received by the critics, it has been a long time since most people in the U.S. with even a passing interest in smartphones thought about buying a BlackBerry. Unless those folks spend their money with RIM, Heins’ dreams of a mobile computing future may never get off the ground.
So what’s the short-term plan for recapturing the US? “You cannot be a leader without being in the U.S.” Heins said, hastily adding “North America” in a nod to his company’s home country. He thinks that U.S. carriers are salivating at the chance to offer RIM handsets because they offer “choice” that carriers currently don’t have; wireless carriers aren’t crazy about getting the lion’s share of their smartphones from just two companies.
“Android is mostly dominated by Samsung,” he said, adding “my prediction is that Samsung will basically be the strongest player in Windows 8.” Other handset makers can’t compete with Samsung’s in-house advantage in sourcing processors and displays from corporate siblings, Heins said.
RIM is the only other smartphone company that offers unique hardware and software in one package, Heins said. Microsoft may be poised to change that equation should it release its own smartphone, which seems more and more likely, but Heins believes that carriers are happy to see RIM back with a competitive product, and that the same kind of aggressive promotion that made Android a success can help BlackBerry 10.
The details of how that plan will unfold are apparently not ready for public consumption. RIM has spent a great deal of time and money this year convincing software developers that it is ready and willing to help them become successful on BlackBerry 10, but it’s these carrier relationships that will be crucial to RIM’s chances of coming back in the market. Heins declined to share 2013 shipment goals for BlackBerry 10: obviously, RIM has internal goals for the product, but a lot of what will happen with device shipments is “governed by our carriers. It’s not all in our hands.”
Heins drew some flak earlier this year for being quoted as saying “we have a clear shot at being number three” in the smartphone market, as if he weren’t setting his goals high enough.
“Make no mistake, my aspiration is to win,” he said Thursday. “But I can’t sit here in front of investors and partners and say we will be number one.”
What Heins is trying to do is shift the mobile playing field away from smartphones and toward the internet of things, or the spread of intelligent hardware, software and connectivity into everyday devices. That’s the market in which he thinks RIM has an advantage:
“iOS is five years old. At the end of the day it is a downsized PC OS. Look, they did a great job. My point is I’m ahead of them, I have a true mobile computing platform.”
If Heins is to ever make that claim stick, however, he’s going to have to convince a lot of people who have been buying that downsized PC OS for years to switch back to the BlackBerry in 2013.