RIM pursues consumers and "web harmony"

Jim Balsillie on Research In Motion's app and tablet strategy, and why a mobile OS isn't a selling point.

Research In Motion (RIM) has always been the 800-pound gorilla of enterprise mobile. Lately, though, there’s been a sea change. RIM has moved aggressively into the consumer space, while Apple and Android (to an extent) have become more common inside corporations.

In the following interview, Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM and a speaker at this month’s Web 2.0 Summit, discusses shifts in the mobile world and RIM’s strategies for apps, tablets and the consumer market.


Why has RIM moved toward the consumer market?

Jim BalsillieJim Balsillie: If you look at our last quarter, I think more than 80 percent of our net revenues were consumer. We’ve totally crossed over. I don’t think this compromises the enterprise because enterprise gets to ride on all of the design, volume and engagement of the carrier.

If you were just enterprise, would you get as much retail prominence? No. Would you get the promotion and pricing from the carrier? No. Would you be able to do as much innovative design and high-performance infrastructure around the world? No.

Does the penetration of the iPhone into the enterprise space concern you?

JB: ActiveSync has been around in the enterprise for a while. There’s Windows Mobile devices. There were some other guys. I don’t think this is particularly new. The space is growing, and we’re growing with it and others are growing into it.

You’ve got to remember, when we launched BlackBerry we were in a sea of huge companies asking “they’re the way to go?” We prevailed on that. And now that we’ve grown so well, we’re still in a sea of huge companies saying there’s more than one way to do this. That’s just the way technology is and the way companies look at things.

Where do tablets fit into RIM’s strategy?

Web 2.0 Summit 2010JB: They fit in on a standalone basis and they fit in on a pairing basis — or a mirroring basis with your smartphones. You can do all of your desktop editing off of your BlackBerry paired with a tablet. Or, it can run as a master to the Internet.

We’ve put tablets forward with a web-fidelity approach, supporting Flash and open web development tools like JavaScript and WebKit. Tablets are a critical part of the computing shift, but they’re going to connect in and render in a bunch of different ways. Ours come forward with web harmony, performance, and being friendly to a CIO’s requirements.

Will phones and tablets converge?

JB: It’s possible. I think the reality is that you want something you can clip onto your belt and put up to your ear and talk to. But you also want something with a big screen for media consumption and a bigger UI for the web.

You start asking the question: If you’re carrying around a tablet, how much performance do you want in the smartphone? Because you want to do a certain set of tasks really well, but you don’t want the smartphone to be a proxy for a tablet-type job because now you’ve got the tablet. The interplay is uncertain. It’s going to be quite a broad array of things. That’s why our focus is very simple: Give people web fidelity and give them a development platform that’s web-based. They can craft their consumption and experience as they wish.

How is RIM encouraging app development?

JB: The huge thing we’ve announced is our web tools, which are not proprietary. You can run Adobe Air on our tablet, so you’ve now got three million Adobe Creative Suite developers who are BlackBerry developers. The development environment now just becomes enormously powerful, and it’s harmonious with what’s out there.

We’re radically enhancing App World with the acquisition of Cellmania. We’re also integrating and have launched carrier billing, so you can pay for these things on your carrier bill. We have an application environment that is very open, powerful and familiar. If you’ve written apps for the web and you don’t think you need to change them a lot for mobile, you don’t need to change them now. You can just sell them on mobile.


“The web doesn’t die when you go mobile.” — Jim Balsillie will expand on this at the Web 2.0 Summit, being held Nov. 15-17 in San Francisco. Request an invitation.


How do you view Microsoft’s re-entry into the mobile space?

JB: A lot of the opportunity in this market is migrating to services. I think that’s where there’s opportunity for Microsoft with their Bing stuff and their B2B stuff. Whether they want an OS in there or not is their prerogative.

The better question is: Is Microsoft’s future in advanced services? Or is it about licensing and OS? I would never count them out. They’re a good company. But I think we’ve seen that people don’t really buy an OS. They buy services. People don’t say, ‘”I want to buy that new Java J2ME BlackBerry, or that new UNIX real-time OS BlackBerry tablet.” They want a BlackBerry.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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