RIM's new CEO is a Placeholder not a Prophet

After listening to RIM's new CEO Thursten Heins talk this morning, you could almost hear investors kicking themselves for not being specific enough in their demands for refreshed leadership at the BlackBerry company. "We shouldn't have just asked for a new CEO" shareholders are no doubt muttering, "but made clear we wanted one with new ideas too." Heins, for all his hyperbole about the BlackBerry advantage being its "integrated solution" of hardware, software and services, showed his true colors when he argued that "I don't think there is a drastic change needed." Those colors, it seems, are exactly the same shades as Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie preferred during their tenure at the top. So, is this new CEO simply a temporary placeholder or a sign of fresh misery to come?

Heins' arguments make sense – up to a point. He's right in that few of RIM's contemporaries have a complete grip on each element of the mobile experience; only Apple and RIM can really boast that. "We're strong because we have an integrated solution: network, services, enterprise service and fantastic devices and a fantastic ecosystem" Heins argued when asked about potentially licensing BlackBerry 10 to rivals. "I want to build on that, I will not in any way separate that."

Keeping control can certainly give you the edge. HTC has discovered to its cost the perils of relying on a third-party for your software, for instance, with its Android range: the company went from being the darling of the Android smartphone industry to struggling at differentiating itself, as Google progressively integrated the tweaks and enhancements in HTC Sense into the core OS for every licensee to enjoy.

It's when you consider the current BlackBerry line-up that the holes in Heins' argument become apparent, though. RIM controls the ecosystem of a selection of underwhelming phones that look – with perhaps the exception of the Bold 9900 hardware, if not the software experience – passé in comparison to what's coming out of Apple, Samsung and others. Nokia knows how that feels: it has complete dominion of Symbian, after all, and look how well that's turned out.

[aquote]It's hard to see what new thinking or design revolution Heins could be readying[/aquote]

Heins has been Chief Operating Officer at RIM – a role in which he claims company management made no attempt to hold back or limit his ambitions for the BlackBerry business – and before that SVP of the Handheld Business Unit. It's hard, on the face of it, to see what new thinking or design revolution he could be readying, unless he has been secretly clutching a portfolio of "How To Save RIM" models and strategies all this time that have so far gone unmentioned.

Speaking of the new CEO, freshly-elected independent board chair Barbara Stymiest says "we have been impressed with [Heins'] outstanding management skills, his leadership and his accomplishments within the company." The more you look at his elevation, the more it seems like RIM is treading water: as we suggested might be a decent strategy earlier this month, it looks like Lazaridis and Balsillie have stepped back to temporarily placate the investors and give business-as-usual the chance to go on unimpeded until BlackBerry 10 finally reaches the market.

Problem is, that strategy was only ever going to buy time, not save the company overall, and with little to indicate Heins has the tactics to turn things around – or even the awareness of what needs turning – there's a growing sense that he's an interim placeholder, not the long-term salvation RIM quietly knows it needs. Comparisons are already being drawn with Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, drafted in to shake the company to its core; at least, though, Elop did something fundamental, rather than grab the wheel from his predecessors but stubbornly keep it turned in the direction of the cliff.

Nothing, it seems, can bring the BlackBerry 10 line-up to market any sooner than has been promised before. What we – and investors – needed to hear from RIM's new CEO was self-awareness, not back-slapping. Thorsten Heins may not believe any drastic change is needed, but he's the only one with that confidence.