in Mobile Phones

BlackBerry Storm. An Interesting Story

On November 21st, 2008 Research In Motion ltd launched their BlackBerry Storm flagship product.

According to what I can read RIM spent almost two years on this project in a tentative to build a strong iPhone competitor.

I have been working in the mobile phone ecosystem long enough to know that two years is not really a great amount of time to design and deliver an innovative piece of hardware and software. Nevertheless it is not the most challenging timing I have ever seen on a mobile prhone program. It seems just a fair amount of time.

BlackBerry Storm

BlackBerry Storm

This is why I have been suprised to read two articles from Engadget and the Wall Street Journal:

It seems that RIM spent almost 100 milions USD in the marketing campaign for this device. This is quite reasonable since you want to compete with Apple and iPhone, and Christmas campaign is critical for volumes.

As the Wall Street Journal writes, “people familiar with the matter say that the company sold roughly 500.000 units in the first month”. Great, mission accomplished.

Well, not really.

People started to compain about buggy software and sluggish perfomances.

RIM soon released a new version of the device software that solved some of the issues of the first commercial software but it seems that people still complain.

I think that the most important thing in the Wall Street Journal article is what Mr Jim Balsillie, RIM co-Chief Executive, says about what happened:

the companies made the crucial Black Friday deadline “by the skin of their teeth,” after missing a planned October debut. Mr. Balsillie said such scrambles — and the subsequent software glitches that need to be fixed — are part of the “new reality” of making complex cellphones in large volumes.

RIM has been famous for delivering high quality products to the market and in the past we have not read many complaints about the quality of their products. They are also a big company with a huge team of professionals at every level of the organization.

I would say that what RIM has experienced here is the classic transition from keyboard to touch. It’s a mind shift for every mobile phone manufacturer. It is definitely a hard task to design, develop, test and deliver a completely new touch User Interface and User Experience. Touch based devices are a totally different ball game compared to key based devices, and a much tougher one.

Maybe RIM has made some mistakes and has probably been too keen to accept defects to be included in a commercial software build but I am sure they have done their best.

Sure, we may have the suspect that the approach “Deliver and we’ll fix that later” has been used here.

I am a surprised to hear a CEO saying that this approach is the “new reality”. A many of us may know this is not something new but it something you are not willing to say to your customers. I understand that RIM gave exclusivity on the device to many operators worldwide and that they had to meet deadlines and commitment with them. But, at least, “keep the secrete” and put in place a recovery plan in the form of a software maintenance release. This is not new practice in the industry.

The main question to answer is “Why did Mr Balsillie said that?”. I do not have the answer.

As a last consideration I would say, based on my own personal experience on the field, that the perception of usability in a touch device is much more subjective that in keyboard based phones. The truth is probably in the middle.

[Update – January 28th]

I read from that Verizon has just announced 1 million BlackBerry Storm sold from the official launch to date. At some degree this cannot bee defined as a “bumpy start”.

  1. There was a recent article, I think it was from CNet, about the return rate on the BB Storms. They may have sold a lot of units, but the number they get back is higher than industry average.

    Innovation needs execution, and there are a few executives at BB who might need that too.

  2. I agree with what you write.

    Depending on manufacturer and product the industry accepted return rate may vary from 1% to 3%.

    In this case if we look at the issues that customers had with the product software and the return rate that seems to be high we can say that execution has not been brilliant.

    As a more general consideration I can say that many manufacturer have lowered their quality standards in recent time and that is definitely a very bad sign.

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