RIM's Co-CEOs Have a Losing Attitude

Last Updated Apr 15, 2011 3:37 PM EDT

Research in Motion (RIMM) is in big trouble. Not because of the Apple (AAPL) iPhone and iPad or Google (GOOG) Android. RIM's problem is its own attitude toward the rest of the world, as exemplified by its co-CEOs. And that's enough to lose the market by trumping even the best product strategy, let alone one distinctly off because of that very attitude.

This week brought two great examples of that attitude in action. First, in an interview with the BBC, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis took offense at a question and abruptly ended the interview.

BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones kept pressing on the issue of security: governments in India and throughout the Middle East have pushed for access to email and instant messaging on BlackBerry devices. Lazaridis declared that the question wasn't "fair" and called off the interview.

Of course the question was fair -- it was just also uncomfortable for Lazaridis. A well-prepared CEO might have thought to answer, "Our security problem is that we've got the only platform that third parties can't necessarily get into." But, no, he took offense because, after all, how could anyone dare question RIM?

It's an iconic product. It's used by business, it's used by leaders, it's used by celebrities, it's used by consumers, it's used by teenagers. I mean, we're just singled out. That's just because of our success.
Forget for a moment that being an icon isn't necessarily a good thing. (The buggy whip was iconic both before and after the arrival of the automobile, although for different reasons.) The assumption that the world owes you deference is dangerous. It leads to ignoring what customers want and assuming that folks outside your company will act the way you think they should.

That attitude explains a fair bit of the drubbing that the company's new PlayBook has received from influential reviewers like Walt Mossberg at All Things Digital and David Pogue of the New York Times. And that brought the second example of attitude, this time by co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

Not that reviewers thought that the PlayBook was fundamentally bad. However, they objected to the lack of a built-in cellular option and, critically, the product's inability to handle secure email or chat without being tethered to a BlackBerry smartphone. Jim Balsillie defended his baby and showed, in the process, a questionable view of the world:

"I don't think that's fair," Balsillie, 50, said in a television interview yesterday on "Bloomberg West" with Emily Chang. He pointed out that more than 60 million BlackBerry smartphone users can pair their phones and PlayBooks to read e-mail and connect to the Internet. "A lot of the people that want this want a secure and free extension of their BlackBerry."
Again, questioning the Collective Wisdom of RIM is unfair, even though the company has just told every potential customer who doesn't already own a BlackBerry phone to go take a hike. And given that Balsillie likes "our chances for a lot of share," he must expect a lot of BlackBerry owners to pony up -- oh, and not forget to bring their phones along.

Any time a company can do no wrong, you can bet that the people at the top are doing little right.

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Image: Flickr user BIGDOG3c (J. Todd Poling), CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.