If it ain’t broke . . .

Just about everybody has heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and as with most proverbs, it’s a pretty sensible sounding philosophy. That is, until applied to reality. In many cases, adhering to such a credo results only in stagnation. It’s a lesson many have learned the hard way, and it looks like that’s exactly what will soon happen to one of the most prized companies in Canada.

Some say that Research In Motion (RIM) invented the smartphone a decade ago when it shipped the first BlackBerry, and its products have since become ubiquitous tools of business. The BlackBerry brand is surely one of most recognizable in the world — a remarkable achievement in such a short time — and its phones are unmistakeable.

With such an icon at its disposal, things should be going rather swimmingly for the Waterloo, Ont.-based company. But all is not well at RIM. In fact, all has not been well for some time, but a sufficient storm of circumstances has suddenly brought this sharply into focus.

Let’s start with the product itself, which is suffering badly in my opinion. Aside from some cosmetic makeovers, RIM’s products look basically the same as they did five years ago. The BlackBerry software in particular seems embarrassingly antiquated to me; the hardware seems pretty pathetic as well, compared to the competition.

The iPhone has, of course, captured the public’s imagination, but it’s not the only threat. It’s not even the biggest threat, actually. Apple’s golden goose still doesn’t play very nice with corporate enterprise software — RIM’s bread-and-butter.

On the other hand, Google’s mobile operating system, Android, can be tweaked almost infinitely, and IT departments are starting to catch on. Furthermore, there’s a war brewing between Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 and HP’s webOS for third place in the smartphone category, and both companies could potentially leverage the considerable market penetration of their other products to muscle RIM right out of the running.

So what happened? Theories abound, but in my opinion, it is possible that RIM’s problems start at the top, with its co-CEOs and founders, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. Lazaridis, who is the techie of the two, has had a particularly bad few months, having to defend RIM’s decisions in several interviews
At RIM’s last earnings call, both men dismissed calls from several quarters to evaluate RIM’s management structure. Shortly thereafter, a scathingly critical letter from an anonymous “high-level RIM employee” was released onto the Internet criticizing, amongst other things, a lack of innovation within the company.

So what to do? There’s a real danger of RIM being purchased given that its stock price is the lowest it’s been since 2006, and such an acquisition could possibly turn out to be a strategic coup for a company such as Microsoft in that battle for third place.

The best-case scenario would be a new chief executive. This isn’t an uncommon move for any business, and it’s worked for some of the tech industry’s greatest behemoths, including IBM and Google.

In all likelihood, though, RIM’s board will leave Balsillie and Lazaridis in place for now, and the company will keep chugging along until things get much worse. After all, as far as the co-CEOs are concerned, their product ain’t broke. And it isn’t, really — BlackBerrys still work exactly as they were designed to ten years ago. Just “fixing” them would be a comical underreaction. RIM needs to wipe the slate clean and start over, or continue its slow slide into irrelevance.

Greg Sacks is a second-year law student.