RIM’s 2011 has been a nightmare – and it better wake up soon

Steve Dinneen
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At a time of year when success stories are being lauded in a frenzy of year-end round-ups, spare a thought for those standing in the shadows, solemnly planning their new year’s resolutions. Sony’s should be “must remember to lock the back door,” given its unfortunate hacking incident, adding to the woes of its TV department, which made the cardinal mistake of not selling any TVs.

HTC’s reputation as the industry’s bright young thing faded as it struggled to make any progress on its blockbuster Sensation handset (I’m looking at you, Titan).

Nintendo failed to set the world on fire with its 3DS console, which could mark its swansong from the portable gaming market it has dominated since before the release of the Game Boy.

Few companies, though, fared as badly as Canada’s RIM. It was the kind of year you expect to wake up from, screaming, caked in sweat and vomit, and realise it is still new year’s eve 2010. But you’re not: it’s 2012 and you’re naked, in the middle of a field somewhere in Hampshire, surrounded by armed police. It happens to us all.

The year, which saw RIM lose more than 80 per cent of its value, was capped by a blackout in which users across the world saw their email and Messenger services grind to a halt. It made people realise how much they rely on their BlackBerrys – a horrible reality check, like a drug addict going into withdrawal after a monumental, decade long information binge. The disaster was made worse by RIM’s response, in which its executives refused to publicly speak about the problem for three days.

RIM seems to have weathered that particular storm – further interruptions, of course, would be catastrophic – but it was really just a distraction from the more fundamental problems facing it.

Its flagship handset release, the BlackBerry Torch, was a flop – a clumsy touch-screen/keyboard hybrid that sampled the worst elements from both and attached them to an infuriating operating system, leaving you feeling like a rat in a maze, running blindly from menu to menu. Its Bold 9900 range was better – but it was more of the same, an incremental improvement on its core product.

Its market share has fallen accordingly, to 6.5 per cent in the three months to November from 7.1 per cent in the previous quarter.

Its handset business, though, has been a roaring success compared to its PlayBook tablet, which RIM recently took a whopping $485m writedown on. A protracted launch, obscene asking price and complete inability to beat the iPad by any metric whatsoever means 1.2m of the units had their value completely wiped out. Even at a greatly reduced price it’s unlikely many people will want one. It is little surprise that its share price has plummeted.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely things are going to get any better. RIM has remained at the sharp end of the mobile world for several reasons; businesses love its encrypted email service; kids love its free messaging service; emailers love its great keyboard. Every one of these attractions is being eroded. Apple, the great white shark of the technology world, a hunter so advanced it makes RIM look like a flailing child at a poorly guarded seaside resort, seems intent on taking the Canadian giant down. It’s pushing its credentials as an enterprise provider – with both the iPhone and iPad – and its free phone-to-phone messenger service is on a par with BlackBerry’s equivalent. Meanwhile, virtual keyboards are getting better and voice recognition is the new cool kid in town.

BlackBerry needs something big this year. I don’t think it has what it takes.