RIM’s future isn’t with BlackBerry

Research In Motion finally pulled the trigger Sunday night, with the BlackBerry maker announcing that co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie were stepping down. Chief operating officer Thorsten Heins is the new CEO while board member Barbara Stymiest takes over as chair.

As the saying goes, it’s too little too late.

While investors and analysts alike have been hankering for a change in leadership at RIM for some time now, Heins isn’t exactly the new blood they were hoping for. The German native, who has 20 years of experience at electronics conglomerate Siemens, has been with RIM for the past four years.

While the BlackBerry maker rose to great heights under Lazaridis and Balsillie—at one point it was Canada’s most valuable company—they also oversaw its tremendous fall from grace over the past few years, a spiral that went into overdrive in 2011. Installing someone who The Globe and Mail describes as the previous leaders’ hand-picked successor at the helm isn’t exactly much of a change.

Stymiest, the well-respected director who has been pegged for the chairperson’s role for a while now, has been with the company since 2007. Investors looking for fresh opinions and directions aren’t likely to get it from the new leaders. Heins even said as much—“There’s no need for me to shake this company up or turn it upside down,” he told the Globe.

Many observers would beg to differ. Despite the company’s hyperbole about its 75 million customers, the sun is quickly setting on RIM in smartphones. Not only are the iPhone and Android carving up the market, Microsoft—in conjunction with Nokia—is poised for a comeback. The two partners were the stars of the Consumer Electronics Show a few weeks ago, with the likes of Wired and the New York Times proclaiming both to be “cool” again thanks to the strong showing of the latest Windows Phones.

Microsoft has yet to translate its newfound hipness into actual sales, but it does have some significant long-term advantages over rivals. Not only do the company’s phones look and feel very different from the others, Microsoft can also take advantage of its huge PC and Xbox install bases to do things the others can’t. Lastly, there’s Microsoft’s biggest advantage: it has mountains upon mountains of cash to burn. It can keep hammering at the smartphone market until it finally gets its share.

As I said in my CES wrap-up, a resurgent Microsoft can only be bad news for RIM. In a four-way race between Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM, it’s pretty clear who the minnow is. Perhaps that’s why some people continue to hold out hope for the BlackBerry maker—while it was once the top dog, it’s now thoroughly the underdog.

If Heins really does want to save RIM, he’ll have to do the exact opposite of what he says he’s going to—he needs to turn the company upside down. RIM’s best shot might be to pull an IBM; get out of the hardware business entirely and focus on selling software and services.

The company’s most valuable assets right now are its software, servers and security. Focusing on its strengths and licensing those assets to rivals could be a smart way forward. Staying the course and trying to fight the big three of U.S. technology? That’s just downright suicidal.

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