The RIM experience

Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company behind the Blackberry mobile email solution, has been embroiled in an ongoing patent dispute with a small US company called NTP for some years now. The courts have repeatedly found in favour of NTP and granted an injunction banning RIM from selling and operating the Blackberry in the US. RIM secured a ruling staying the injunction while it appealed, but last week the US Supreme Court issued a potentially significant decision, refusing to hear RIM’s latest appeal.

If RIM is unable to reach a settlement with NTP (a previous agreement which would have seen RIM paying USD 450m in damages fell apart), it will be forced to either cease Blackberry service in the US or implement a solution which avoids infringement of NTP’s patents (either way, it will still end up paying an as yet undetermined sum in compensation). The business risks for RIM are obvious: it generates about half its revenues from the US market. However, the implications for customers are less certain.

This provides an interesting example of the direct relationship between corporate strategy and user experience.

Despite the progressive change in attitudes among industry executives since since we first started talking to them about the depth and scale of user experience issues, it is sometimes difficult to illustrate this concept to senior management. One of the key messages at our last MEX conference was about understanding that financial and strategic decisions can have just as much impact on the customer as technology or design choices.

RIM’s success is built on the purity of its user experience. Customers bought the Blackberry because it was the first mobile email solution which worked simply, efficiently, securely and in real-time. Its popularity continues to grow because RIM has never lost sight of this core functionality throughout several upgrade cycles. Newer versions of the Blackberry may have more features, but they are still designed to do one thing above all else – manage email in the mobile environment.

From a technological standpoint, that is unlikely to change even if RIM has to re-architect parts of its platform to sidestep NTP’s patents. However, the commercial aspects of this patent battle are already having serious consequences on RIM’s user experience.

One of the biggest problems is uncertaintity. RIM users have affectionately referred to their mobile email devices as ‘Crackberrys’, so addictive is the experience of any-time, always-on messaging. But with the prospect of service interruption looming over them, users are already hesitating to place too great a reliance on their Blackberrys. Indeed, RIM is using the ubiquity of Blackberry in financial, government and commercial infrastructure as part of its legal argument against enforcing the injunction – several US government departments have already raised their concerns about what could happen to their IT systems if Blackberry service is interrupted.

It would a supreme irony if a company with a reputation for arguably one of the best device and software experiences in the mobile industry was to create negative sentiment among its customers because its executive management and legal counsel were unable to find a solution to its commercial problems. There is a chance RIM’s executives and lawyers may emerge victorious from the courts (they are still challenging the validity of NTP’s original patents), but by that time the uncertaintity created by the ongoing legal problems may already have done extensive damage to the customer experience.

What IT manager is going to authorise a new Blackberry deployment while the media is full of reports about potential service shutdowns? The implications don’t stop there either – what about the network of hardware manufacturers, operators and third party developers who rely on Blackberry devices. This legal battle could be particularly damaging for the fledgling industry of ISVs who provide custom corporate applications for enterprise Blackberry users. Even though their software may be unaffected by the patent dispute, they could still face problems if companies start deserting the Blackberry in favour of other platforms.

I’d be surprised if RIM wasn’t already acutely aware of these issues and I can fully understand why it has chosen to continue with its legal wranglings rather than seeking a quicker settlement. After all, quantifying the damages it will have to pay NTP is much easier than guessing at the long-term revenue loss caused by introducing uncertaintity into its user experience.

However, this only makes the ability to empathise with customers all the more important.

I’d encourage any company in this position to put customer experience at the heart of their legal strategy. Technology can be re-developed, balance sheets can be re-financed – customer impressions are much more lasting. RIM’s priority should be ending uncertaintity for its existing user base, maintaining its reputation among potential customers and ensuring its partners can continue to support it in good faith.

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