Technology industry

RIM: M2M technology may help save company

Machine-to-machine technology would let you buy stuff with your BlackBerry.

Thorsten Heins (Julie Fletcher, Bloomberg, Getty)

When Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins recently set out to bolster the company’s battered image, it was difficult not to recall Baghdad Bob. The Iraqi information minister became famous during the second Gulf War for claiming all was well as, behind him, things crumbled. With even RIM’s most stalwart defenders now believing BlackBerry 10 will do little to reverse the company’s dismal fortunes, the defiant bluster of RIM’s executives can seem similarly oblivious.

Yet, within the widely mocked Globe and Mail op-ed Heins penned as part of his press junket, there was a cryptic yet intriguing suggestion that BlackBerry 10 will connect users “to the embedded systems that run constantly in the background of everyday life—from parking meters and car computers to credit card machines and ticket counters.” That technology is more commonly known as machine-to-machine, or M2M for short, and is the name given to the ability of devices to relay information between one another. Already widespread in the business world, it now stands on the cusp of an explosion in consumer applications. And though it’s certainly a long shot, M2M also represents the last, best hope for Canada’s beleaguered tech giant.

Essentially, M2M is a system in which sensors can automatically and wirelessly relay relevant information. Currently, it’s most common in commercial applications. Assembly-line robots can indicate when they need service, utility meters can transmit usage data, and it’s even being used to update electronic billboards from afar. But M2M has also been creeping into the consumer market—it’s used in the car monitoring service OnStar, and the invisible web connection that powers Amazon’s Kindle.

The appeal of the technology is easy to discern: it automates and makes wireless a whole host of activities that used to require a physical connection. More important for RIM is that the company could be unifying these various disparate functions and making BlackBerry 10 the receptacle for all this data. With digital technology now constantly spitting out information, RIM could build an M2M ecosystem and place its devices at the core.

It’s a promising idea. Imagine a production manager being able to track the status of both an assembly line and a shipping network from her BlackBerry. Similarly, consumers could use their handsets to check their electricity usage, pay for parking or coffee, control their home security or be reminded of when to service their cars. If RIM played its cards right—and yes, that’s a big “if”—the BlackBerry could be to M2M what the iPhone was to the mobile web.

Most important, instead of trying to tackle Apple, Google and Microsoft head-on in the arenas of apps and mass media, RIM could take the M2M opportunity to zig where others have zagged. Because M2M relies largely on open protocols, instead of proprietary apps that match both the mobile OS and machine, RIM could simply build a system to interact with existing M2M tech, and in the process, take the first-mover advantage.

The key lies in whether or not RIM is able to produce the holistic vision to make this really work. After all, the success of the BlackBerry was never solely about handsets. Rather, it was the corporate infrastructure connected to those handsets that led the company to its once soaring heights, in no small part because people were willing to pay monthly for the service. As everyone has been telling RIM since the advent of the iPhone, it’s the ecosystem, stupid. Yet, surprisingly, RIM could succeed by focusing on an ecosystem its competitors haven’t even begun to contemplate.

It’s a risky tactic that would require securing numerous corporate partnerships and fending off the inevitable copycats, among a host of other challenges. At the same time, it’s also clear that RIM’s remaining options are few. If Heins & Co. can do it right and do it well, it just may turn out their bluster was well-founded after all.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based blogger and technology critic.