BlackBerry’s Model Madness

BlackberryEvery time you stop by the drug store to pick up some toothpaste, you face the paradox of choice, a phenomenon first described by psychologist Barry Schwartz. Schwartz believes that when consumers are faced with a dazzling array of choices, it doesn’t make them happier and more satisfied. On the contrary, they feel stress and freeze up in a kind of decision paralysis.

Which brings us to BlackBerry. A New York Times article last week looked at RIM’s poor market performance and pinned much of the blame on product-line proliferation.

One reason for the worry, analysts say, is that no amount of advertising will help increase the sales of BlackBerrys in the United States because the current line is a jumble of models. There are BlackBerrys that flip, BlackBerrys that slide, BlackBerrys with touch screens, BlackBerrys with touch screens and keyboards, BlackBerrys with full keyboards, BlackBerrys with compact keyboards, high-end BlackBerrys and low-priced models. Features have proliferated on BlackBerrys as part of RIM’s move to the broader consumer market, and so have the number of models. Since 2007, RIM has introduced 37 models. The company, in a statement, said it did not know how many models were on the market.

And by the way, “the BlackBerry Torch 9850 and 9860 are touch-screen phones that are on some shelves next to the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and 9810, touch-screen phones with slide-out keyboards. (The model number differences reflect models adapted for different cellphone systems.)”

Contrast all that with Apple, which has released four iPhone models in three and half years. One result: BlackBerrys accounted for only 9 percent of the U.S. market in the third quarter. At the end of 2009, its share was close to 50 percent. The mighty have fallen.

It’s not too late for RIM to snap out of it and streamline itself, but the rush is on. Business buyers—especially those who buy in lots of hundreds or thousands—hate to make mistakes and hate uncertainty. In the good old days, it was said that “You’ll never get fired for buying IBM.” More recently it might have been “You’ll never get fired for buying BlackBerry.” But the market has done a cartwheel, and IT buyers are a little disoriented. They want clarity, not an impossible number of options.