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Should RIM Acquire an Industrial Design firm?

I touched upon this topic in a thread I started in the forum, but I thought I’d elaborate on it here as a posted article. BerryReview, a few while back, highlighted this piece in Business Insider rounding up its “Best Tech Acquisitions of 2010”.

Guess which one was ranked at the top?

Research In Motion bought QNX, a software division of Harman International, in April. The QNX team is already making a huge impact creating software for RIM’s PlayBook tablet, which looks promising. QNX is also platform of the future for the BlackBerry phone lineup.

It beat out some other significant purchases by Microsoft and Google. QNX’s Real-Time Operating Systems have been at the core of a huge number of embedded systems spanning a myriad of industry sectors. RIM is now betting on QNX to be the foundation for its devices for the next decade.

RIM also acquired The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) last month presumably to help bolster the visual user interface elements in upcoming Blackberries and the Playbook platform. Take a quick glance at some of their concept designs and we’re already getting a sense that RIM is looking to innovate the UI to levels we haven’t seen in a Blackberry device.

Both acquisitions to me speak to RIM’s recognition in needing to increase its appeal with the growing market of consumers that are looking at high-end, but not necessarily corporate smart-phones. It’s easy to see what draws them to RIM’s main competitors—Apple and the plethora of high-end Android based devices sport large high resolution screens, smooth UI effects, along with sleek and slender form factors.

The acquisition of QNX has already shown promise for RIM’s future. Showcased at this year’s CES, I don’t recall reading a single report that came away disappointed with how the OS looked and performed.  The demonstrated power in multi-tasking and masterful use of the touch sensitive bezel was seen as impressive by most. And I don’t even think we’ve really seen the full potential of this platform yet. In addition, I also doubt much of what we’ve seen so far has incorporated anything from TAT yet, so the potential for great functionality and a visually powerful UI is exciting. Indeed, according to reports, TAT is currently working to design even more creative ways of using the touch sensitive bezel.

So, RIM has seemingly gone and actively pursued external assets (through acquisitions) for both the core operating systems that will drive its next generation of Blackberries and the creative design elements of the user interface.

But, it begs the question: Is there some other asset RIM should be pursuing?

What about an Industrial Design firm?

RIM should look at whether or not there is a cutting-edge company out there that can help them reinvigorate the exterior design of future Blackberry devices. An acquisition of this type would not be revolutionary in the industry. Some may recall CISCO purchasing a company in order to more fully prepare itself to enter the consumer electronics market. Now, I’m sure RIM has an in-house team that’s always been working on hardware design for a long time, but the company is also struggling to shake the so-called “Refresh” label in its 2011 Line-up.  Even with some significant improvements in technical specifications, there is still a perception out there that all of RIM’s new phones just, well, look the same as they always have.

While all of us are fond of and may even prefer the unassuming and simplistic look—the design of the new Dakota has some welcome subtle updates—the 2011 Blackberries nevertheless could still stand to add some innovative flare.  Don’t get me wrong, the Dakota (or its CDMA variant Montana) will be the best looking Blackberry ever; the thinnest RIM has ever designed if the reports are true, and with a luxurious fully machined stainless steel frame, this phone will be hot! But in my observations, it still fails to impress those that need to be impressed, namely the smartphone buyers that are flocking to Apple and Android phones.

I have had friends that majored in Industrial Design during college, but not knowing much about the field myself, I did a quick web search. One company that turned up was RKS Design, whose clients include Apple, HP, and even Gibson guitars (I should however disclose I’m a Fender guy myself J).

They had an interesting concept for a phone shown here:

Of course this particular concept doesn’t really match the usual monochrome and low-key looks Blackberries are renowned for. Nor am I advocating for something like the odd “Empathy” concept (shown at the top of this article) that BerryReview wrote about a few months back. But, I think bringing in some outside talent could breathe some new life into the existing Blackberry models. There are many similar design firms out there doing some interesting things.

Digitalhomeboy.ca’s concept for a Dakota-like phone also comes to mind, and has been mentioned by BerryReview before:

With a dedicated design team working alongside QNX and TAT, along with RIM engineers to retain the most beloved aspects of Blackberries (reliability, security, build quality and great battery life), they could go toe-to-toe with their growing competitors in the field.

What are your thoughts?

28 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. That yellow phone looks like something volkswagon would make. Personally I wouldn’t be caught dead carrying something that looks like that.

  2. I would take a Titan depending on spec.

  3. I think having a dedicated design team would be perfect. RIM is on the verge of really coming back with a vengeance, it would be great to see them release some hardware that still felt like a BlackBerry but was something new and beautiful. They have made all the right moves on the sofware side of the game. That Titan concept is beautiful and I can only imagine what a phone would look like with a dedicated design team. I know I’m a BlackBerry lover and I’m a little biased but RIM is on the cusp of really changing the mobile world.

  4. as long as its nothing so drastic like palm hp or nokia.. why not

  5. Babi and Terrence, I fully agree… it could help, but could it also back fire on the firm?

    What if they want the new BBs to be engineering marvels, where battery life and device performance get hurt?

    We know RIM wont release anything that doesnt get better than average battery life, and with specific designs it adds an extra cost to the device and everyone already gripes over how much a no contract device sells for.

    • Good engineering involves all factors: design, battery and performance.

      Having a dedicated design firm working with RIM’s hardware engineers should still be able to produce a phone that has great battery life and performance.

      For example, the Titan concept doesn’t seem that outrageous and shouldn’t be a detriment to battery or performance.

  6. we also need to remember, a lot of the devices are created due to carrier demand and engineering dollars they pump at RIM

  7. If they do acquire a industrial design firm I recommend the following design improvements:

    1. Wider keyboard (for people with big fingers. Touch pad should be enlarged and enhanced to double as a gaming directional pad.

    2. 3 or more convenience keys including keys on the top of the cell phone like the 8520/8530 Curves (don’t like the 1 convenience key trend). Convenience keys should also be integrated into the gaming apps such as pinball or space shooter games.

    3.All the BlackBerry USB ports should be on the left top side of the BlackBerry phone.

    4. A Bigger smoother and durable screen – like the super Amoled, Gorilla glass android screen but better – for ease of swiping and cleaning.

    5. The Blackberry phone itself should have more curved ( like a guitar) with metal incorporated into its construction and a tighter ribbed grip in the back, like the Torch.

  8. I really think they should buy Pininfarina (which I believe is the design firm behind Ferrari), and get some of their designers to design the shells.

    They have some experience in electronics having designed external hard drives before, and if you recall that patent a while back for a winged BB (the keyboard), with Pininfarina onboard they could design a gull-wing BB pronto.

  9. First of all, excellent article Barry. I saw this topic in the forums. It would be great for RIM to consider different form factors and designs. I think you’re right when you say that some outside talent could breathe new life into BlackBerry. RIM has seemed content in the past to keep their basic form factor holding true to the cliche, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    With their acquisitions of QNX and TAT, and the imminent revamping of the software BB’s will run, it only makes sense to match that with a brand new exterior.

  10. BerryReview, thank you so much again for the re-mention of the Titan Concept. The Titan may not be outrageous in design, but keeps it’s familiarity with the line while answering to competition. Should RIM acquire an industrial design firm? I would say yes, even if it is a contract-term base. There really is a lack of appeal for device fashion within the BlackBerry line, though it’s performance and security may be outstanding there is still the generation that want the lavish looks in their mobility. Hopefully, as the Titan’s exterior was designed with less parts in mind reducing the build-up of “pocket lint”, RIM see’s this and acts towards it within their designs.

  11. Crap, forgot to log in…I am indeed registered! Just thought I’d mention that!

  12. I’ve been thinking about this since the post went up and personally I want new design but I really do want it to be a familiar design. I love the current BlackBerry design, and though I look forward to something new, I really wouldn’t like it if they strayed very far from the current designs. I want to be evolutionary, you know, that triple axel we were told about, as opposed to a revolutionary design.

  13. Very good write, Barry.
    Should RIM acquire an industrial design company? Absolutely! Will they attempt doing it? Very unlikely, in my opinion. Their designs over the years, while not mind-blowing, have been adequate, and in some cases exceptional. The Pearl and original Bold are good examples of appealing devices. Someone here suggested acquiring Pininfarina. I thought that would be a brilliant choice. Whether this is doable is up for debate.
    What I see as a more realistic approach, is luring some of the talented designers out there to beef up their existing team.
    Just a quick point on the location of USB port. I’m thinking that it would be great, if they actually build one on each side.

  14. I dunno… a lot of phones are starting to resemble one another. The first one (Empathy) has a very distinctive angled design that is quite unique. I just don’t know how functional those keys would be. If it was a touch screen (without keys), I think it would be a rather cool device to sport around :) I don’t like the others displayed.

  15. While RIM has traditionally (and still is) been a business smartphone, things today are changing and more and more consumers are using smartphones as well. I think that in order for RIM to appeal to a much wider population,they much keep up in what has become a rapidly evolving market. Smartphones today enable one to watch online movies, shop, share, and do all sorts of other things in addition to e-mailing and so forth. Having said that, i do think that RIM does need to focus more on developing a quality touch screen device that beats the competition.
    Although, RIM traditional design has worked well for RIM, i feel there are ways in which they can improve upon that design.

  16. I have seen some videos of TAT UI……… and i was blown away… just the fluidity alone captivated me…. im still gonna dig and see what more i find.

  17. The titan looks so sweet, if that was touchscreen with a hard keyboard I would be in love.

  18. I’m not so dissatisfied with the design cues I see coming in the 2011 lineup. I don’t think RIM needs to outsource or contract device design, but a little fresh blood on the design teams can’t hurt.

    And the point about carrier influence is a very good one. You want them to hawk your phones you build phones they want to hawk. Remember, unlike iPhone where the carrier is just a middleman between Apple and the customer, to RIM the carrier IS the customer and we are but end users. We don’t buy RIM phones from RIM, the carriers buy them. Only with PlayBook is RIM breaking this model and going direct to end users as customer. That will be a tough transition for them, they have always had the carrier filter.

  19. That Titan refresh does look sharp.

    I mentioned this in the forums, another potential purchase, in my opinion, is Dragon Naturally Speaking…bring voice capability to everything that Blackberry does already and also, incorporate it into QNX.

  20. The idea of a mobile company acquiring an ID firm is not without precedent. HTC acquired ID firm One&Co a couple of years back.
    http://www.engadget.com/2008/12/03/htc-acquires-design-firm-one-and-co/

  21. dshcpa, It would be nice since Nuance already makes the voice recognition software for the BBs and now Dragon.

    Voice dictation built in to the device would be a huge up, as more people use their device as a desktop replacement every day!

  22. I couldn’t agree with this article more. I am a loyal BB owner despite being tempted many times moving over to Apple. BB largest problem is lack of design panche! The “TK1.5 TiTan” is a great idea but still plays on a “old” looking model. Ironically the pictures floating around the web showing the “new” Curve..codename Apollo, is what the Bold should look like. Isn’t the Bold its flagship phone…why not stretch your creative juices the most there. Check out the link yourself and judge. http://blackberryrocks.com/2011/01/14/leaked-photos-blackberry-apollo-dakota-torch-2/

    The sleek look, finish and design of the “new” Curve is a copy of current standards from Apple and Android but a far cry better than anything BB has produced to date IMO.

    The “design” of BB’s UI and hardware is but one of the issue facing BB. What does IPhone have going for it…user friendly, sleek forward design, cool factor. In the world of reliable devices, with top notch security and strong corporate functionality…hard to beat a BB. But I would submit to this panel and BB most smartphone consumers are not looking for that as the first option. If BB were to offer similar innovative and creative packages along with their superior functions none of us would be having this conversation.
    Can and should BB be looking to gouge the “consumer” smartphone market or stick to its core…I offer a little of the first and a whole lot of the second with fresh innovative looks and ideas. Give the corporate world something other than good ole reliable and the other will venture over to check out the coolness of a true biz phone!

  23. I stumbled into this blog by complete accident and was fascinated by this post, as it’s very closely related to my line of work and I’m also a RIM stock holder.

    I fully understand the benefits of RIM purchasing QNX as they have a lot of intellectual property that’s very valuable to RIM. The purchase also ensures that QNX doesn’t offer their IP or services to a competitor. This all makes perfect sense.

    I don’t understand why RIM, or any other wireless/mobile device company would even consider the thought of buying an industrial design firm. Engaging an award winning industrial design firm to design a product or line of products is a great idea. Purchasing a design firm seems to be a bit on the excessive (expensive) side.

    Acquiring an industrial design firm would take a huge amount of work to make it happen properly. It would also take a fair amount of time.

    QNX already had software that RIM wanted or needed to purchase. Judging from the renderings on this page, I would say that they do need some help with the industrial design of some of their products. Unlike QNX, it is impossible to find a design firm for sale that has already designed the next black berry or other device that RIM needs to update.

    As I said earlier, I’m a principal engineer at a design firm. We have an abundant amount of experience with these type of devices. If there are any RIM executives lurking around, please feel free to hit me up.

    Website: http://www.jamproa.com
    Portfolio: http://www.jamproa.com/portfolio.php

    Happy blogging!
    David McDonald
    JAM-Proactive

    • It was a smart move for RIM to acquire TAT as Google was an existing client for them. The purchase not only shakes up the industry, but now has Google looking to find another design firm to work with. It’s rather frustrating to share ideas then to be dropped as a client. As we know now with the PlayBook officially released that TAT has brought their creativity to the table in form of apps i.e. The PlayBook caculator!
      Does it makes sense to acquire a design firm, of course it does!

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