RIM CEOs defend problematic PlayBook launch

During the conference call after one of the company's toughest quarters in years, RIM's co-chief executives don't have regrets about how the launch of the company's tablet was handled.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read
RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie speaking at Mobile World Congress in 2011.

The co-CEOs of Research In Motion don't seem to have any regrets about how the launch of its PlayBook was handled.

That is rather interesting because, well, no one would say it went very smoothly.

On the conference call aftertoday's disappointing earnings announcement, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis gave long-winded, meandering, and sometimes confusing answers as to why they wouldn't do anything different in the way the company presented, launched, and raised expectations of its first go at a touch-screen tablet.

To be clear, RIM said today it has shipped "approximately" 500,000 PlayBooks since April 19. That means it sold even less than that. And since last fall when it introduced the PlayBook, the company has repeatedly underscored how its take on the tablet would launch it to the head of its class of competitors. The marketing campaign for the PlayBook that rolled out earlier this year declared rather boldly that "amateur hour is over."

And RIM potentially confused the heck out of its future customers (and its developers) by announcing several updates to the PlayBook product in the months between introducing it September and putting it in retailers' hands in April, including the QNX software-based tablet's ability to play Android apps, and a future model with 4G connectivity.

RIM Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis at BlackBerry DevCon in San Francisco last year.
RIM Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis at BlackBerry DevCon in San Francisco last year. James Martin/CNET

And that's not even including the mess surrounding carrier partners. AT&T bristled at BlackBerry Bridge, a technology that tethers a BlackBerry to the PlayBook, Sprint eventually came around after delaying its offering of the PlayBook several weeks, and Verizon is still sort of iffy on whether it's ready for prime time. Then today, when the PlayBook officially went on sale in the U.K., major carrier O2 ruled out selling the PlayBook right now, citing "end-to-end customer experience issues."

So why then did they answer like this?

Balsillie speaks in the style where he answers a question by asking more questions and sometimes answering them himself. He seemed to be saying that RIM didn't have the option to wait much longer before pushing PlayBook out the door. And he kind of blamed the media for misunderstanding what RIM really has to offer.

"When you have a fast-moving market do you wait and get all fit and finish done or do you get it going when it's a good entry point and then you have an OTA (over-the-air update) utility to tighten it over time? I'll tell you when I meet with very, very senior industry analysts that advise major CIOs they say this is the biggest mismatch in their career between what's being commented on (in the media, presumably) and what's under the covers," he said.

"So do you wait and not get your story out? Do you walk headlong into the competiveness and to the media where there's a very high bar on fit and finiish? It's a dilemma," Balsillie added.

If he's asking whether a product competing with the iPad needs to work well and look good when it hits the market, the answer is a resounding yes. Apple has sold 25 million of these things and most people need to be given a really good reason to pick a different brand. If RIM has a superior product, they needed to demonstrate that. If CIOs like the PlayBook so much then more of them should be ordering them. RIM did say today 1,500 companies enterprise companies have ordered PlayBooks, so that's a start.

Balsillie did seem to acknowledge that it took them a rather long time from when they announced the PlayBook to when they put it on sale.

"I'm happy to take comments and criticism. I don't know what we could do other than could we have asked people to get more things done sooner," he said. "They were all working as fast as they could."

"Would I do it materially different given the facts at hand? I don't think so. Would we have wanted certain other elements ready at the time? Certainly. Could we have prepped media and channels with more information? Of course."

Co-chief exec Lazaridis explained the delay in getting the PlayBook in stores--or some of the changes to the product mid-stream--had nothing to do with their confidence in it.

"There was no hesitation with regard to how great the product was or the performance," he said.

Then he explained why rushing it out the door was actually OK.

"We realized that we made sure that we had that over-the-air full upgrade capability built in from the start that allowed us to get new applications through App World, but also add features and upgrade the platform on a continued cadence."

They didn't directly address something that most observers of the company have concluded: that working so hard on the PlayBook has derailed its BlackBerry business. The company hasn't had a major launch of a smartphone since August, and has seen its unit share at the top U.S. carriers diminish, something RIM did acknowledge today.

But they did suggest that the work on its QNX-based platform, for both tablets and phones, will be worth it in the long run. Several times the two of them made reference to the new platform setting the company up "for the next decade."