Research In Motion was was ahead of everyone to the cloud. In fact, BlackBerrys were cloud devices long before we knew enough to call it “the cloud.” But failure to capitalize on that first-mover advantage has left RIM struggling to catch up in a game that it, in many ways, started.
Since the first BlackBerry, the 850 in 1999, was basically a two-way pager, RIM understood from the beginning that its success depended entirely on back-end services. The BlackBerry was a platform in a way that no other phone approached (Palm, in its heyday, came closest.) For a long time, the RIM back end outclassed anything else in the field, especially when a BlackBerry device was connected to a Microsoft Exchange messaging system through a BlackBerry Enterprise Server. When you got a new BlackBerry, the IT department sent you an authentication code. You ran the enterprise Activation app on the device, entered the code, and within a few minutes all of your mail messages, contacts, calendar information, todo lists, and notes appeared on your BlackBerry through the magic of the cloud. Over time, RIM added additional services, such as the ability to deploy custom app data and corporate documents via BES.
What RIM failed to do was to bring the slick, it-just-works beauty of an enterprise BlackBerry setup to consumers. As a client for a standard internet mail account, a BlackBerry is somewhat worse than average. Real-time, over-the-air calendar and contact sync required kludgey third-party solutions. And, of course, application development lagged far behind the offerings for iPhone and Android. Its biggest attractions for consumers, especially the text-centric, were outstanding keyboards and the excellent BlackBerry Messenger messaging system. But other hardware has caught up with blackBerrys in text entry and surpassed them in all other regards.
Today, platform religion is standard in the smartphone/tablet world. But the cloud components of Apple’s iOS5 and the tight integration among iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and Macs should put it in a class by itself. In one sense, Apple is 10 years late to this party, but once again, it has proved that getting there best is a lot more important than getting there first.