Chris Umiastowski spent over a decade working as a technology analyst on Bay Street. He now works as an independent analyst and strategy consultant and is blogging from the BlackBerry Developer Conference for the Globe and Mail.
Having returned home from my annual trip to Research in Motion's developer conference (DevCon), I'm reflecting upon everything that I learned and what it all means to the future of BlackBerry. I definitely feel like things are more clear now. But that isn't entirely good news because some of the things I'm clear about are just how bad things have been over the past few years.
I gather information at an event like DevCon by speaking to lots and lots of attendees. This includes RIM executives, lower-level RIM employees, surprisingly large numbers of former employees, specialist bloggers and of course, developers.
The single most important take-away from DevCon, for me, was the radical and much-needed changes going on within RIM's developer-relations team. The two words that matter here are "Alec Saunders". Mr. Saunders is the new vice president in charge of developer relations. He joined RIM about a month ago. But he is no stranger to the story. He was actually the VP of marketing at QNX Systems back in 2001-2002. QNX was acquired by RIM in 2010.
I was impressed with how Mr. Saunders communicated in Tuesday morning's keynote session. He was refreshing, passionate and clear. I spoke to dozens of developers about him, and it's strongly evident they are thrilled to have him as RIM's point man for the developer community.
For years, developers felt that their concerns were not being addressed. Even today, other executives use language such as, "We are looking into how we can fix that problem". Language like this is classic analysis paralysis. Whenever I hear a RIM employee talk about "looking into the problem" or "considering strategies for implementing that idea", I know from experience it means things will move very slowly, if they don't completely drop the ball.
But Mr. Saunders grabs me as a man of action. He has already told the Java community that the way forward is HTML5 and native C++. He apologizes for the pain it causes Java developers, but makes no apologies for taking action towards the correct path for RIM's customers.
I've been critical of many of RIM's senior managers. My prediction is that Alec Saunders will fight mediocrity and analysis paralysis to the death. He doesn't sugar coat bad news or opinions of where RIM has failed in the past. He is quite probably RIM's new rock star. He is a model of how this company needs to communicate.
Many of the people within the teams that make up RIM's latest acquisitions seem to be making a difference too. The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) was acquired for its brilliant user interface design capabilities. They stole the show during the keynote on Tuesday when they showed off something called cascades, and advanced framework that will be built-into the new BBX operating system allowing developers to implement very attractive graphical interfaces and animations without having to learn any new code.
Between the teams at QNX, TAT and Torch Mobile (responsible for the high quality browser on the Playbook), it is clear to me that RIM is making excellent forward progress on products. Unfortunately, that progress has been masked to the outside world by what I can only describe as unbelievably bad messaging.
I spoke to a wide variety of RIM employees about this topic and the vast majority agreed with my harsh views of the company's external messaging. This still needs to be addressed. Products need to be great. But hundreds of millions of potential new customers need to be sold an emotional message of how great it is to be a BlackBerry user. Apple Inc. is the model to follow here.
Investors, including me, are frustrated that RIM hasn't communicated effectively to set expectations for native email on the Playbook or release dates for phones powered by BBX (the new branding behind the QNX operating system). But they have made a ton of progress on closing the "app gap" and giving developers a reason to stick with them. If developers stay with them, so will consumers. After all, BlackBerry remains the best messaging-centric smartphone platform in the world. Just ask the nearly 50 million BBM users on the planet.
RIM is in a fight for the #3 position in the smartphone market. But like any good fighter, you should always aim to punch through your target, not at your target. The people at TAT and QNX seem to understand that. Mr Saunders gets it. Does the rest of RIM?
I'll be holding onto my shares in the company for at least a while longer. I'm eager to see how the next phase of RIM unfolds.