Let's Get Stupid Why is the RIM BlackBerry a great little device for reading and sending e-mail on the road? Because the company knows how to turn stupidity into magic.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Okay, I confess. I didn't get a Blackberry until three months ago. The thing was introduced nearly two years ago. The maker of the device, Research in Motion (RIM, for short), doesn't like to talk about how many people use BlackBerries, but well-informed people guess that more than 400,000 other people already have the little e-mail machine. It's hard for a proper device weenie to protect his reputation when he's two years and nearly half a million people late to the party, so I'm just fessing up right here.
I have to say, though, that I'm not the only weenie I know who's taken this long to nab one of these things. Part of the reason some of us are so late is that the company has thrown up all kinds of obstacles to potential buyers.
Let me explain: The first time I tried to get a BlackBerry, I concluded that Research in Motion must be the stupidest Canadian company I had ever encountered. I called a number to order a device, and the person on the phone said that I needed to fill out an application to buy one. When I got the application form, it was several pages long, and I was sufficiently intimidated by the amount of detailed information the company requested that I promptly put it aside and forgot about it. The local sales representative left me a couple of voice mails. Then he gave up on me.
Now, this kind of customer "service" seemed really stupid to me. Why should I go through all that for a little device that costs $400, displays e-mail on a tiny screen, and asks you to type with your thumbs when you want to send e-mail of your own? Go figure. Sure, BlackBerries were all the rage in investment-banking circles. During the Internet bubble, those bankers got a pretty good impression of themselves and felt they had to have absolutely up-to-the-minute e-mail, especially when they could ostentatiously pull out their BlackBerries in the middle of presentations to check the latest. But I figured that Internet investment bankers were a flash in the pan and that RIM, especially with its stupid customer service, might well be the same.
But RIM kept selling BlackBerries. The company's share price started climbing. (Even now that the bubble has burst, RIM is still worth more than $5 billion.) So I spent the time to figure out why the company made it so hard to get a BlackBerry. The answer: The company needed all that information on the application because it was intent on creating a technically complex service--integrated e-mail delivery on a wireless device--that was easy to use. So this was stupidity with a point, after all.
Compare this with the Palm VII, which was incredibly easy to buy after its May 1999 launch. I got one right away, easily, with no hassle from the company. And then I found out why so few people actually bought a Palm VII. Its e-mail service, Palm.net, was different from my regular e-mail and not integrated; it was essentially useless.
RIM, on the other hand, took the time to get the data it needed to ensure that the e-mail you get on your BlackBerry is the same as what you get on Microsoft Outlook (RIM smartly chose to support Microsoft Exchange, the predominant e-mail in the financial services world and in much of the rest of corporate America). The only way to do that was to write a piece of software that was installed on the same server as your Microsoft Exchange software. And that ain't easy.
It ain't easy, but that's precisely what's so important about the BlackBerry. It is integrated. Lots of technology development is done in a way that sacrifices integration for raw performance or time to market. Who suffers from this? You, the user, because it is left to you to make your software or devices work together. Your e-mail at home may not match your e-mail at work; you update a phone number in one address book but it doesn't get updated in another. Those are constant annoyances, and companies that really want to solve those problems for you have to put in lots of time, effort, and ingenuity on the back end. Palm didn't take the time. RIM did. It made it easy for different companies across different industries to offer their employees e-mail that was integrated, from the corporate network to the new wireless devices.
Which brings us back to stupidity. I thought RIM was being stupid when it asked me to fill out that huge application. Actually it was just doing its best to adapt to my needs. And in so doing, it produced real magic: When I'm out of the office and respond to an e-mail on my BlackBerry, the device lets me read the original e-mail without being in front of my computer, lets me type a response and send the new e-mail, and then actually updates my e-mail back at the office. When I get back to my desk, I can see that the original message has been read and responded to, and a copy of the response has been deposited in my SENT MAIL folder. That's magic. The magic of stupidity. Let's hope for more of the same, and not just from RIM.
STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Except as noted, neither he nor his partnership has a financial interest in the companies mentioned. He can be reached at email@example.com. His column may be bookmarked online at www.fortune.com/technology/alsop.