Maybe RIM’s Thorsten Heins Isn’t So Clueless After All

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RIM CEO Thorsten Heins is going where no RIM CEO has gone before.

Two months ago, when RIM CTO Thorsten Heins was named as the company’s new CEO, it was easy to be skeptical about his chances of turning around the ailing BlackBerry maker. In fact, it was hard to be anything but skeptical. In his first remarks as CEO, Heins seemed to be Chauncey Gardner as CEO: bland, cheerful, and uncritical. He actually said that “we don’t think significant change was needed” at RIM, which would seem to be a disqualifying stance for a RIM CEO in itself.

Fast forward to today. RIM has announced worse-than-expected quarterly results. Has Heins changed his position? Yes, by 180 degrees: he now says that “It is very clear to me that substantial change is what RIM needs.”

And change is happening. Jim Balsillie, RIM’s long-time co-CEO, is leaving the board. The COO is leaving. So is the CTO. Heins, who entered his job speaking of the vital importance of the consumer market to RIM, now says that the company will step back from it in order to focus on the business products that made it a juggernaut in the first place. It’s also considering licensing its software and isn’t ruling out the possibility of selling the whole business.

I’m not sure whether the eerie complacency of Heins’s early media appearances was a facade, or whether he started out complacent and has come to believe that radical measures are required. Either way, it’s a huge relief to hear a RIM CEO say something that sounds brutally realistic rather than frighteningly out of touch.

More than anything else, the company’s fate still rests on its ability to prove that it’s capable of shipping great smartphones in 2012 and beyond. It’s going to be a while until we know for sure whether the first BlackBerry 10 devices are any good. Even if they are, it might be too late.

But for the first time, RIM is acknowledging publicly that things aren’t largely hunky-dory. And it seems to be removing some of the people who helped it dig itself into such a hole.┬áIf the company does turn things around — and it would be a wonderful story if it did — today might be remembered as the moment when things started to get better rather than just another grim chapter in a once-mighty company’s slow decline.