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

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Why RIM, Nokia, and Microsoft blew themselves up
RIM particularly played up its cozy relationship with security- and control-minded CIOs who would never let such toys into the enterprise. Nokia and Microsoft had the same paternalistic, insular point of view. (Dell's story is more like that of the OEMs -- I'll get to that shortly.)

They were talking to the wrong people. CIOs and IT managers are generally conservative, risk-averse, and traditionalist -- especially at large companies and even moreso at regulated ones. In their worldview, change is bad, and so is user freedom. These Neanderthal IT leaders are a lagging indicator of what's really going on. They dismissed the PC, the Internet, and e-commerce, too. But betting on them -- and the large checks they kept writing -- let RIM, Nokia, and Microsoft blindly traipse into irrelevance.

Meanwhile, individuals -- whether or not in businesses -- were acting on years of HR advice: They were being self-empowered. Now, they had more and more tools to apply that power. The PC was first, then the Internet, then software as a service (Salesforce.com has created a huge business by explictly seeking out these people and avoiding CIOs). In 2007, Apple added mobile to their arsenal, and they picked it up with a vengeance.

Fast-forward three years to 2010, and even CIOs stopped resisting and began embracing iPhones. If RIM, Nokia, and Microsoft had any doubt their world was fast changing and they were soon to be polar bears on shrinking ice floes in a climate-changed world, those questions had to have evaporated last year. However, they had spent so much time resisting the change that they didn't know how to embrace it, and they had almost no time left to figure it out.

Nokia simply flailed. Microsoft jettisoned its existing platform (Windows Mobile) and started over again. That could have worked, except the team decided to pretend the previous four years had never happened, so its new mobile operating system covered a fraction of the iPhone's iOS and Google's Android capabilities. It wasn't even a me-too product; it was a "what's an iPhone?" product. RIM followed a similar trajectory, but it had even less of a clue about what an iPad competitor should be -- in fact, it didn't want to even accept the notion that its tablet would compete with the iPad. All this happened in the year that the iPad became the most quickly adopted enterprise technology ever.

Microsoft and RIM compounded their poor results of their insular, disconnected thinking by deciding to throw away their previous core mobile markets -- businesses -- and aim for 20-something hipster kids. Clearly, both companies' management teams were going through midlife crises and imposed their cracked view of a hipster on their product planning.

Microsoft came out with the "social" Kin, aimed explicitly at kids, who reacted the way all kids do when a 40-something parent tries to act cool: They quietly laughed and went elsewhere. Microsoft then did the same with Windows Phone 7, but with a little less explicit hipster pretension. The result was an elegant UI, but the rest of the product was unusable by its business and adult customers: no security or management capabilities, awkward Office implementations (virtually unchanged from the iffy Windows Mobile 6 version), no copy and paste, no support for HTML5, no multitasking. There was nothing, in other words, that the iPhone platform (followed by Android) hadn't made table stakes two years earlier.

RIM was even worse than Microsoft in this regard. The PlayBook has no manageability and almost no security capabilities, yet it relies on the user having the most conservative smartphone there is: a BlackBerry. The pairing makes no sense, and it's inconceivable why RIM would throw away its history and come out with a device that is less secure than any competing product.

Plus, despite the word "play" in its name, it had nothing truly playful or cool. No apps stand out (despite having hired away much of DataViz's mobile apps team), and a 35-year-old title (Tetris) is its hallmark game. If RIM was comfortable trashing its security history, it didn't seem to know what to bring to the mix instead.

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