RIM’s Most Excellent Decision: Delaying BlackBerry 10

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Thorsten Heins talks about the future of BlackBerry at BlackBerry World in May 2012

Back in April, I failed to take advantage of an opportunity to look prescient. A couple of weeks before RIM held its big BlackBerry World conference in Orlando, I got an invitation to meet here in the Bay Area with executives from the company. I enthusiastically agreed, thinking that my meeting and BlackBerry World would both provide plenty of details about BlackBerry 10, the company’s upcoming all-new mobile operating system.

Instead, my briefing revealed…nada. The RIM folks made some sweeping comments about overarching goals, but neither showed me BlackBerry 10 nor told me anything about specific features.

They did tell me that they’d be giving early test phones to attendees of BlackBerry Jam, a developer confab held in conjunction with BlackBerry World. And when I asked, they confirmed that BlackBerry 10 was on schedule to ship in 2012.

But when the conference rolled around and the test phones were doled out, it was obvious that the software on them wasn’t even fully baked enough to qualify as an early alpha. At best, it only revealed random, scattered bits and pieces of what BlackBerry 10 would look like.

By way of comparison, Microsoft released its first beta of Windows 8, also scheduled to ship late this year, in September of 2011.

I read the news from RIM’s conference and thought to myself “There’s no way this is going to be ready to ship this year.” If I’d shared that gut reaction here, I’d be entitled to say “Told you so!”

Now: On Thursday, RIM reported bleak financial results and plans to lay off 5000 employees, and announced that it’s postponing BlackBerry 10’s release until 2013.

The collective wisdom of smart people is clearly that the delay is likely to seal RIM’s grim fate:

I disagree. I think it’s an admirable decision by CEO Thorsten Heins, and possibly a sign that the company finally has its act together.

If a software product isn’t going to be worthy of shipping on schedule, its maker has two options. It can go ahead and ship it anyhow, even if it’s buggy and is missing crucial features. That’s the strategy RIM followed with the BlackBerry PlayBook, and it proved to be disastrous for everyone involved.

In fact, almost all that RIM has done since the first iPhone’s debut is release products that weren’t ready: the Storm, the Storm 2, the Torch and others. When you release products as lackluster as those, whether you hit your deadlines or not is irrelevant.

At this point, the only thing that can restore RIM to health is an amazing BlackBerry 10–and a terrible BlackBerry 10 could be the final blow.

For RIM, the odds remain daunting. Even with extra time, it could ship a crummy product. Or it might ship a great one that’s not enough to turn things around. And we still don’t know enough about BlackBerry 10 to say, even tentatively, that it looks promising.

But if you’re rooting for the company to make a stunning turnaround, as I am, the delay isn’t yet another sign that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s evidence that Heins, unlike former co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, is willing to err on the side of quality over expediency–and isn’t hopelessly disconnected from reality.