Posts Tagged ‘BlackBerry’

Apple ’97 & RIM ’11: Round 2

A few days ago I published this post after watching Steve Jobs’ Q&A session on the final day of WWDC ’97. What struck me about the footage was how much the 1997 Apple shared with Research in Motion today, particularly their ineffective leadership, incoherent platform strategy and confused developers.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought this: earlier today, Boy Genius Report published an open letter from an anonymous RIM executive to the company’s senior management team highlighting his/her frustrations with the way the company was being run, including an 8-point list of suggestions to rectify the highlighted issues. Point three on this list, entitled ‘Cut projects to the bone’, is rounded off thus:

Look at Apple in 1997 for tips here. I really want you to watch this video because it has never been more relevant. 

To hear somebody at a ‘high level’ within the company (verified by BGR) making these connections is hopeful for RIM. In 1997, Apple was blighted from the inside by ‘good engineers who were bad managers’, only able to create products from a technical perspective and with little regard for user experience or consumer relevance. When Jobs returned to the company and sought effective change to right the sinking ship of Apple (first puppeteering then-CEO Gil Amelio and then as CEO outright) he did so by doing exactly what the anonymous exec prescribes in their letter: ‘Cut[ting] projects to the bone’. RIM’s inability to ‘kill their babies’ is costing them dear.

The comparison of RIM to the 1997 Apple is actually not as disadvantageous a position to be cast in as it may first appear. There are two reasons for this:

As evidenced in this open letter, there are executives at the company who are open to outside reason and influence, who just want the best for the company, who hate to see it suffer and want to restore it to past glory. The anonymous author of the letter may not have the gravity of Jobs, but they are not alone:

I know I am not alone — the sentiment is widespread and it includes people within your own teams.

Again, this is great for RIM if it is indeed true, and it sounds perfectly plausible that a widespread sentiment of lost confidence and disillusionment might be prevalent at the company right now. In numbers, this voice of reason may grow loud enough to be heard.

Secondly, and to further RIM’s advantage, is that 1997 was 14 years ago. That’s 14 years of turnaround strategy, platform change and growth, alterations to business models and more upon which to draw. Even if the company was faltering for other reasons, they could do far worse than to study the changes made by Jobs and his team when they returned to Apple. The plain similarities between the problems of RIM ’11 and Apple ’97 make it almost a cut-and-paste job in some cases (sending clear messages to your developers, for example).

However RIM chooses to proceed, the opportunity to enact the ruthless and effective change in the company encouraged by the open letter is likely not one that they will apparently be ‘aggressively addressing’ according to the reply posted on their corporate blog earlier today. Right now, the company seems too preoccupied and defensive to take the effective action it desperately needs to: it seems that the program of self-protective corporate blog posts, meaningless shareholder appeasement programs and public CEO-meltdowns is set to continue.

On Apple and RIM – WWDC ’97 Steve Jobs Q&A


This video has been doing the rounds on the internet since John Gruber posted it to Daring Fireball a few days ago, and whatever your thoughts on the present day Apple it’s a remarkable and insightful piece of footage which has profound resonance in the context of today’s industry.

At the time of filming, Gil Amelio was still CEO of Apple and Jobs had returned as a ‘Special Advisor’ after the purchase of NeXT. Rather than taking the keynote speech on the opening day of the developer conference, Jobs rounds off the week with an open Q&A for attendees, with topics ranging from marketing strategy to graphical development software and his personal choice in PDA.

There’s some very amusing moments – Jobs discussing how much he enjoys working with Gil Amelio when a matter of weeks later he led a boardroom coup that sent the CEO marching, and an early appearance of ‘work[ing] their butts off’, made famous by the 2010 Antennagate ruckus – but of particular significance are the prescient technological and business strategy allusions. Ten years later at the same event, Jobs unveiled the iPhone, but in 1997 he was already envisioning a portable device with a constant connection to the internet and email. It may have lost the keyboard in the intervening decade, but the nascent concept of the iPhone was already formed even before Jobs became CEO.

Accompanying the iPhone on its stratospheric rise to success over the past four years has been the App Store, and in 1997 mention is even made of the importance of creating a cheap and easy means for developers to get their software into the market place. On iOS (and now the Macintosh), the App Store is the fruit of this vision, and 10,000,000,000 downloads later it’s clear that it was a good one.

While there’s a certain amount of geeky nostalgia to be enjoyed (and laughs to be had) watching relatively vintage clips like this one with the benefit of hindsight, there is also a great deal of business sense on show here which is still of great relevance today. One question from an audience member regarding Jobs’ thoughts on the Newton MessagePad yields an answer which the co-CEOs of RIM would be wise to listen carefully to.

At the time, Apple was building a next-generation operating system (Rhapsody, see my articles here and here) based on the Unix-derived NeXTSTEP. While this platform was in development, the classic Mac OS also required maintenance and improvement to sate the requirements of the existing install base. In addition to these two desktop software platforms, the line of Newton MessagePad PDA devices was a third, fully independent platform which itself required the same maintenance and enhancement efforts as the desktop Mac OS. With the company cash-poor, developing and maintaining three simultaneous software platforms was a dangerous strategy – the future success of the company required a new, great operating system, which a development team stretched thin and on a shoestring budget simply would not be capable of producing.

Today, Research in Motion has an almost identical problem – two existing platforms and one in development – yet seem to be rushing head forwards (eyes closed) into this demonstrably dangerous OS strategy. The existing line of BlackBerry smartphones runs on version 6 of their operating system, however while the OS is soon to be updated to version 7.0, software written for the new version will not be compatible with the old, and existing handsets will not be upgradeable. Similarly, compatibility between existing software and the new platform is not guaranteed.

In addition to their two largely incompatible smartphone platforms, RIM has a third OS, currently in the market running on their PlayBook tablet and based on the QNX operating system, which is destined to eventually replace (the as-yet unreleased) BlackBerry OS 7.0. As with Apple ’97, the company seems unable to stick to just one or two definitive, coherent ecosystems with clear, logical development guidelines. Instead, they opt to simultaneously operate multiple weaker operating systems and a non-cohesive, bewildering array of software development options. As Jobs said, some companies can’t even handle one platform properly, and RIM is proving that three times over.

One thing that is conclusively proved about Apple’s growing success over the past 15 years is that planning, vision and clear thinking rules. In the face of crowd protestations over the cancellation of OpenDoc, Jobs coolly explains it purely as a business decision to cease a project conceived by ‘good engineers who were bad managers’. The notion that development should be consumer- rather than technology-facing is extolled here, yet 15 years later it seems that the lessons of the past have not been learned by some.

OpenDoc, Newton and the Macintosh clone market were all casualties of Steve Jobs’ business process upon his return to Apple, but those were other people’s ideas on the chopping block. The real testament to Jobs’ ruthless methods is his willingness to scrap his own projects. In their quest for perfection, design students are reminded at every stage of their training that the most important thing to be able to do is ‘kill your babies’, something apparently missing from computer science degrees. Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s mastery of this principle is exemplified by their brutal treatment of MobileMe recently, but it’s their ability to make these decisions and enact necessary change which continue set them apart from the competition.