Can a Leaner, Meaner RIM Rise Again?


Bigger isn't always better. Not even in the vast, windblown tundras of Canada.

That's why Research In Motion jumped as much as 10% this morning. In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt, RIM CEO Thorsten Heins conceded that he might scale his smartphone empire down to a simpler software and technology licensing operation.

Discussing RIM's long-running strategic review, Heins put his cards on the table: "We do not want to limit our options." There's no need to rush into anything, but he considered licensing BlackBerry software to other handset builders and even thought about selling the hardware division. But first, the brand new BlackBerry 10 platform has to prove its worth on the open market, so there's nothing to announce until that launch at the end of January.

For starters, Heins hopes to get BlackBerry code running in some new places, like managing your car's infotainment systems. That's less of a stretch than you'd think. BB10 is based on the QNX software the company bought from audio systems veteran Harman International Industries . If your SUV sports a stereo system by JBL, Harman Kardon, or Infinity, you've got an early preview of RIM's automotive hopes.

The newspaper dared to ask the ultimate question: Can you imagine BB10 falling flat?

"Life goes on," Heins said. "But it's true that this is a crucial moment and milestone for Research In Motion."

Investors are loving this refreshingly open attitude toward drastic changes. Tomorrow's RIM might be a very different beast from the current version. In five years, the company could flourish on millions of dashboards and third-party handsets while BlackBerry-branded handsets become a swiftly fading memory. As backup plans go, that's not a terrible endgame.

But in order to make it that far, RIM has to fight back Apple and Google in the handset market, at least long enough to prove that the BB10 platform is worth something. That's a superhuman task in itself, given the massive head start Android and iPhone products already enjoy.

And the second step into automobiles already faces a huge early-mover challenge from Microsoft , which already powers infotainment systems for several major car brands. The burgeoning industry interest in in-car systems both outlines the huge market opportunity and the challenge in gaining a serious foothold.

All things considered, I like how Heins keeps his options open but still wouldn't bet on RIM rising from its ashes, phoenix-style. The man inherited a tremendously difficult job.

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