RIM aims to recapture start-up mojo with fresh blood

T.A. McCann, former CEO of start-up Gist and current RIM executive, says he is bringing the same kind of culture to the embattled BlackBerry maker.

RIM's headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario. Research in Motion

A year and a half ago, T.A. McCann was working on a BlackBerry version of his contact manager app Gist.

T.A. McCann Research in Motion

Today, he is running two of Research in Motion's crown jewels -- BlackBerry Messenger and Contacts -- while ensuring that current and upcoming lines of BlackBerrys are properly tied into various social networks.

McCann's rapid advancement through RIM underscores some of the sweeping changes CEO Thorsten Heins has put in place since taking the reins of the company. McCann represents the new guard of leadership, individuals who weren't around to witness the company crater from its perch atop the smartphone market.

"It's a big step to put leaders like ourselves in pretty important areas," McCann said in an interview with CNET today.

McCann joined RIM when Gist, a start-up that he founded, was acquired in February 2011. Earlier today, he said that Gist.com would close on Sept. 15, the last steps of RIM bringing some the company's contact management expertise in-house. He previously spent time at venture capital firms Vulcan Capital and Polaris Venture Partners, and prior to that worked on the Exchange Server Group for Microsoft.

In addition to McCann, other new hires include Frank Boulben, chief marketing officer and former marketing executive at LightSquared, a 4G start-up that crumbled under political pressure, Chief Operating Officer Kristian Tear, formerly of Sony's mobile division, and Chief Legal Officer Steven Zipperstein, who last worked at Verizon Wireless.

Alec Saunders, the face of RIM's developer outreach program, moved over from the QNX business about a year ago, and similarly moved up the ranks in rapid fashion.

That McCann is running two of the company's most valuable properties out of Seattle and not the company's Canadian headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, underscores the company's attempt to shake conventions and embrace a more start-up mentality as it struggles to reverse its fortunes. McCann said little of his style of running things has changed with his new role at the company. Rather, it's been quite the opposite.

"We're bringing that start-up approach to some of the most key areas in the company," McCann said. "It's exciting to see change at both the product and process levels."

Under Heins, RIM is moving much faster, solving problems and making decisions more quickly, McCann said. Teams are more effectively working together. There's also a lot more communication and transparency, he added, noting that employees have a better idea of where this company is headed.

In working with social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and FourSquare, McCann said there was a lot more excitement than there was previously. In the last two months, he said he has seen collaboration between RIM and social networks jump up dramatically.

"We've gotten a lot more focused and faster," McCann said.

Heins, who has worked at RIM for five years, took over in March amid loud cries for the heads of former co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, who watched as RIM shed roughly three-quarters of its market value. The stock is down by nearly 50 percent since the beginning of the year.

Heins was initially criticized for being too close to the former CEOs, and many noted that he served at a high level during the company's decline. Since then, however, Heins has worked to distance himself from the past and acknowledged the problems and challenges facing the company -- something his predecessors loathed to do. Part of his time has been spent shuffling the executive ranks and adding talent from the outside.

The fresh lineup of executives, however, isn't enough to shake the negative sentiment surrounding RIM, which continue to face countless skeptics. The company has been in New York showing off its BlackBerry 10 smartphones -- one a full touchscreen similar to the Alpha Dev test unit previewed at BlackBerry World in April, the other a Bold-like phone with a touchscreen and Qwerty keyboard.

Unfortunately, the phones aren't launching until early 2013, and RIM continues to see its market share in its home market of North America sink further below the dominance of the iPhone and Android.

In the second quarter, RIM saw its share of the U.S. market for mobile operating systems fall to 6.5 percent from 10.5 percent a year ago. In comparison, Android led the pack with a market share of 56.3 percent, according to Strategy Analytics.

McCann was mum on the specific features that will win customers back, but said customers can expect more of the universal inbox and BlackBerry Messenger capabilities found in BlackBerry 7. The company plans to release more details about BlackBerry 10 features in the coming months.

Even if the phones turn out to be a step up versus the competition, that alone wouldn't guarantee success. Nokia's Windows Phone Lumia devices garnered several awards and critical acclaim, but were only able to eke out a modest success. After more than a year with a relevant new product, RIM may similarly struggle to find anyone willing to even look at its products.

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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