A Tail of Two BlackBerries

Any minute now, RIM will launch the BlackBerry Storm here in North America. There is quite a bit of excitement around this device. Personally, I have played with the simulator and it looks nice. But the most important thing most of us do with a BlackBerry — email — requires a very good keypad. We’ll see if this one lives up to the hype.

I have bigger concerns, however, for RIM. The release of a touchscreen model splits the company. Now, resources need to be divided between non-touchscreen (keyboarded) devices and touchscreen devices. And this is dangerous territory. When device and OS companies have split their attention before, it has not ended well.

Let’s start with some examples of companies who have attempted to bifurcate their attention and struggled to maintain their leadership position:

  1. Palm: Every company that licensed the Palm OS added their own changes. And then to compound the problem, Palm developed both Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices.
  2. Microsoft: There are actually two completely different versions of Windows Mobile, one for touchscreens and one for keyboarded devices.
  3. Motorola: Linux, Windows Mobile, Android, Symbian… Motorola has licensed all of these at some point and at least released devices with two of the operating systems.

Even big companies struggle with split attention. (Think of what it does to start-ups. I should know!) There is just no way to do something really really really well, like RIM has in the past, while trying to do two completely different things at the same time.

On top of this, it splits the developer community. All of a sudden, we are forced to make decisions about which individual devices to support rather than supporting a platform. Not only is it harder to make a profit, it’s also harder to support the customer who gets confused in their own right. (I can’t tell you how many conversations we have had regarding Windows Mobile: “We support this one but not that one.”)

Is this sour grapes? I don’t think so even though our powerOne for BlackBerry Smartphones doesn’t work very well on the Storm and that to fix it will take a major re-write of the application (to support one device from one carrier). It works fine on every other BlackBerry device.

The good news for RIM — and their potential salvation — is that they are still working on one operating system. From all indications, they did a good job of melding the touch interface and the non-touch interface together into one operating system code base, something Microsoft never did. And as we move forward and turn our attention once again to BlackBerry after we finish FastFigures Mobile for iPhone, we will already have a touchscreen device on the market to test against and will be able to re-write the application to support both touch and keyboarded devices.