Can RIM Survive in the SmartPhone Game?

This week Apple CEO Steve Jobs criticized his main competitors in the smartphone market place – RIM and Google (owners of the Android operating system). Legions of Apple lovers hang on every word from Jobs, and that includes many journalists and bloggers. So it is no wonder that this story got a lot of widely circulated uncritical coverage.

Jobs said two or three things aimed directly at RIM. He suggested they will have a hard time carving out a distinct niche in a highly competitive market – reinforcing the impression that RIM is out-moded, passe and floundering. Then he claimed that Apple outsold RIM in the smartphone arena. He added to that his belief that the 7″ form factor being developed in the new RIM Playbook a direct competitor to the iPad, was a non-starter and would be a bust. The iPad has a significantly larger screen.

Balsillie immediately shot back that RIM was having one of its most profitable years ever and that Jobs had deliberately distorted the sales figures to make Apple’s peformance look better and RIM’s look worse than they actually were. Balsillie also restated RIM’s contention that the Playbook will be technologically superior to the iPad, and will be much more business-friendly.

RIM’s marketing problems

This is all well and good, but RIM continues to have serious image issues. They have simply been beaten to the punch by Apple and are now suffering because of it. Apple is extremely good at blowing its own horn and the company has millions of rabid supporters who would rather die and go to Apple heaven than be caught using a product from one of its competitors.

In an excellent article in Bloomberg Business Week authors Diane Brady and Hugo Miller contrast the styles of Jobs and Balsillie. Jobs is cool in his jeans and turtleneck. Balsillie looks detached and very much a business guy in his grey suit and duck-covered tie.

Their language styles are a study in contrasts too: Jobs talks of revolutionary products while Balsillie talks of “turbulence in the mobile ecosystem”. It is difficult to communicate a corporate vision if you can’t speak in down to earth terms that your most important customers can understand.

Early success may have been too easy

The success of the Blackberry came early and fairly quickly. When it was introduced in 1999 the product was so unique and worked so well that it basically sold itself. RIM hadn’t even run a TV ad until 2008, and didn’t have a chief marketing officer until last year (2009). By comparison, people have been talking about Apple’s TV ads for more than 20 years.

This little spat between Jobs and Balsillie just illustrates that nothing about this battle is going to be easy for RIM. If you think it is all about product quality and market loyalty think again. The gloves are off and only the smart, nimble and tough will survive.

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