The troubled phone maker's new CEO has had a very bad introduction. Here's why he may not be right for RIM right now.
By Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE — If only they hadn’t released that video.
The good news, the part that investors had been clamoring for, came first. Mike Lazaridis, who co-founded Research-in-Motion RIMM in 1984, and Jim Balsillie, who joined the company in 1992, were stepping down as co-CEOs and co-chairmen of the board. It was at once a more aggressive move than expected, and yet somehow not good enough. Because nobody was quite sure what to make of this new CEO, Thorsten Heins.
The name evoked the long-lost glory days of Krautrock, or a parody of Gilligan’s Island, or perhaps a merger of two manufacturers of sandwich condiments. So RIM thoughtfully released a video of Heins proclaiming “I’m absolutely excited” in the soothing tones normally found on a hypnosis recording.
The blogs chuckled. Business Insider watched and declared, “This guy doesn’t exactly make you want to run through a wall to smash the competition.” Daring Fireball was even less kind: “The good news: we forced out our ineffective co-CEOs. The bad news: we’ve replaced them with an incoherent crazy person.” But at the end of the day, what does charisma matter if he can turn RIM around? After all, Tim Cook lacks the stage presence of Steve Jobs, yet Apple AAPL is doing just fine under his management.
It matters, because while RIM and Apple both design and make smartphones, they are two very different companies. Apple is thriving while RIM is in the midst of a turnaround, without any clear plan in sight. And, while some investors were hoping for an outsider to become RIM’s CEO, who could see what bold steps RIM needs to take, they got an insider. And not just any insider, one who oversaw the Blackberry portfolio during the past few years, when it declined from the top-selling smartphone to a brand in crisis.
Even more discouraging were words that Heins gave in interviews. He told analysts, “I don’t think there is a drastic change needed.” He later told Bloomberg that the changes that RIM needs to make have already been made – a year and a half ago. That echoed something Heins said in that comical introductory video: “Sometimes we innovate too much.” Those comments might not be out of place at a successful company, but they feel out of touch at a company, like RIM, in crisis.
So RIM is bearing full-steam ahead on the same course that cost its co-CEOs their jobs: try again with a new Playbook tablet, and keep betting the company on a new Blackberry software platform that keeps getting delayed and may not work well with its core email and messaging features.
It’s easy to understand why RIM would want to stay that course. It will keep its company, its brand and its platform independent. But it’s also the hardest course that RIM could take, because it means executing flawlessly in several areas – on a smartphone and tablet experience that appeals to consumers, on a software platform that is easy for developers to code for, and on the the messaging features that made Blackberry customers loyal in the first place. Further delays will cost the company. But a half-baked software platform will cost it even more.
There are other solutions more likely to turn RIM around, but they are at once more drastic and less appealing to RIM itself – the kind of “seismic change” Heins told analysts he wouldn’t engage in. RIM could switch to Android, the fastest growing mobile OS in the world. The move could help RIM compete more aggressively on price, and its email and messaging could distinguish it from other Android manufacturers. But this is exactly what RIM elected not to do 18 months ago.
RIM could sell its platform and its core messaging features to a company – Microsoft MSFT , Amazon AMZN and even Facebook have been mentioned – who could easily afford RIM’s current $8 billion market value. On the one hand, Heins’ appointment seems to telegraph that no such move is in the cards. On the other, RIM may appeal more to potential buyers now that Lazaridis and Balsillie are gone, replaced with a yes man.
Finally, RIM could compete more aggressively simply by building its brand, especially in North America. It wasn’t just the Apple iPhone that stole the Blackberry’s thunder, it was also the iPhone commercials, which made the Blackberry experience seem outdated. RIM has been without a marketing chief since March. A strong marketing push would not only prime consumers for the new generation of Blackberries, it could return some allure to RIM in the eyes of carriers and app developers. Without their support, new products will sink.
Whatever bold steps RIM needs to turn around, they need to be taken soon. Corporate turnarounds are especially tough in the competitive areas of tech – and no sector is more competitive than in the mobile space dominated by Apple and Google GOOG . If Heins pulls it off, his name would be synonymous with the company’s resurgence.
But maybe Heins is right. Maybe he doesn’t need drastic steps, because everything the company has done up to now is enough to make RIM an innovative leader in smartphones again. But before you bet on that, you might consider that many investors don’t share that bet. When Heins was named CEO, RIM’s stock dropped 8.5% on a day when the market was unchanged.
If Heins were taking the controls at a company, like Apple, where everything was running smoothly, he’d receive a warm welcome. As it is, given the impression he’s made in a single day, that hamfisted video of him is the least of RIM’s worries.