Yesterday's Research in Motion fourth quarter earnings call could hardly have been worse. The Canadian company that makes the once-iconic BlackBerry posted a $518 million loss. Revenue fell 33% in the quarter. RIM said it was planning to eliminate about a third of its workforce, and announced that its new phone wouldn't launch until next year, which would cause it to miss the holiday shopping season. That's very, very bad. It also shipped about two million fewer BlackBerries than it did in the third quarter, and about four million fewer than it did in the last quarter of 2011. That's not an encouraging trend. Finally, the company admitted that the next several quarters would "continue to be very challenging," and RIM CFO Brian Bidulka confessed that the layoffs and restructuring costs would impact the company's cash position, and not in a good way.
Oh, yeah. RIM stock fell 15%.
Coincidentally, the iPhone is five years old today. (You can download one of the many free virtual candle or lighter apps from the App Store to celebrate.) Back then, at the beginning, even as the hype was building, former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie dismissed the new Apple phone as "one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers." A threat to RIM? "I would think that's overstating it," he said, understating it.
Well, it's easy to take shots now. But back then, who knew? When the iPhone launched on June 29, 2007, the BlackBerry was the berries. It was the CrackBerry, an unrivaled status symbol. Carrying a BlackBerry meant you were a mover and shaker, a master of the universe. And the iPhone? It was a cool-looking toy that was, by the way, really expensive, slated to cost $499 compared to the BlackBerry Pearl?s $149.99.
Basillie was hardly alone in dissing the iPhone. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laughed at it, as is his won't. He predicted that it wouldn't appeal to business users because "it doesn't have a keyboard which makes it not a very good e-mail machine."
Predicting the tech future is a mug's game. It demonstrates a lack of humility. iPhones and Androids now have over 80% of the smartphone market; Blackberry has 6%. On the other hand, businesspeople still salute their beloved BlackBerries and corporate IT still loves the proprietary RIM platform and operating system with its native and secure support for corporate e-mail. Is the BlackBerry dead? Probably. You don't have to be Nostradamus to predict that it's going the way of the Palm, the Treo, the Walkman, the Zune, typewriters, record players, and the jukebox.
Yes, the jukebox. At this week's CFO Corporate Financial Excellence conference, I went to a bar one night and decided to invest a buck or two in the jukebox to hear some tunes. Only it wasn't a jukebox. It was an Internet-connected gadget that hung on the wall and streamed music. It had a touch screen. You identified your preferred genre (classic rock, alt rock, pop, opera bouffe), and it would begin playing. It also had a built-in camera that would upload to my Facebook page a shot of me rocking out if I wanted to frighten my friends and relatives. Or, at least, it would have if I could have figured out how it worked and wasn't too embarrassed to ask.
So if I can't operate a jukebox, who am I to mock Balsillie or Ballmer or anyone else for failing to recognize the next new thing? If nothing else, the tech beat teaches humility. Humility, at least, is reliable.