Anatomy of failure: Mobile flops from RIM, Microsoft, and Nokia

The iPhone and iPad are decimating companies left and right, at a pace even faster than the PC revolution's

Research in Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook is so bad that Verizon Wireless may not bother carrying it -- a spokesperson said so the day after the PlayBook debuted to customers. AT&T won't let BlackBerry users download the essential app (BlackBerry Bridge) that brings email and communications apps to the PlayBook. Carriers are arms dealers, selling weapons to anyone for a price, but even they are drawing the line at the PlayBook.

That's a huge fall given that the PlayBook's creator, RIM, is the successful patriarch of the mobile market -- inventing the smartphone category, in fact. And RIM is not alone.

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Like RIM, after lots and lots of promises leveraging its Windows savvy and market strength, Microsoft produced its own disastrous mobile platform, Windows Phone 7. It's not as bad as the PlayBook, and if you really want one, a carrier will sell you a unit. Dell too jumped on the Android bandwagon and produced a series of awful tablets, after a failed foray into making its own smartphone. (Remember the Axim?)

The list goes on. Nokia had to kill its signature Symbian OS after a new CEO forced it to admit that the OS was at end of life after several years of self-denial, and the company's efforts to create a successor had all failed. It then jumped from the frying pan into the fire by adopting Windows Phone 7 and delayed new products until 2012. Then there is the parade of successful, largely Asian PC and display makers (original equipment makers, or OEMs) -- such as Acer, Lenovo, and ViewSonic -- who promise and even sometimes ship sloppy, ill-conceived devices in hopes of getting into a growing market. How enticing!

Why are such established technology powerhouses failing so spectacularly in mobile? How can they not see the self-destruction in their approaches? For RIM and Nokia, the failings threaten their medium-term existence. For Microsoft and Dell, the failings prevent them from growing where the market is moving.

There are several reasons, and one of them is not Apple. Sure, Apple worked its design magic on first the smartphone and then the tablet, bringing to market the same zeal, elegance, consistency, and ecosystem advantages that have made the Mac the only PC with a growing market share. But Apple had done that with the original Mac, yet was still beaten by others. The fact that Apple's mobile products are truly the best doesn't explain why the competitors' products are generally so bad.

The answers have to do with an essential flaw found in most companies: They can't easily change gears because doing so means dropping the focus on what has worked and brings in the money now for an unproven, untested, risky shift. Clayton Christensen captured and described this phenomenon wonderfully in "The Innovator's Dilemma," an often-cited business book most businesspeople don't seem to actually follow.

When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, it seemed to be a left-field change for the Mac maker, a bet that it could enter and succeed in an alien market. That wager paid off, with Apple now the highest-valued public technology company in the world. But in 1999 or whenever CEO Steve Jobs decided to shift from being a PC maker into a consumer device maker (2001's iPod was the result, which led Apple to the iPhone and now the iPad), that proposition had very long odds. At the time, Apple was in critical condition, so the company had the freedom to take its chances.

RIM, Nokia, Microsoft, and Dell haven't been desperate enough to truly think different. When the iPhone came out, they all pooh-poohed it as a toy that would at best appeal to Mac loyalists. (Never mind the example of the iPod.) Today, iPads already outsell Macs 4 to 3 and iPhones outsell Macs 5 to 1 -- that shows why mobile is so important to computer vendors. In addition, iPads are credited with torpedoing the netbook market and shrinking the PC market.

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