Mr. Balsillie began floating the idea that carriers could instead offer BBM as their own enhanced version of text messaging, generating revenue for carriers while providing a cut for RIM. He called it “SMS 2.0.” (SMS stands for “short message service.”) RIM would agree to reduce the fees it charged for services, in exchange for gaining access to hundreds of millions of non-BlackBerry users.
He and Mr. Brown discussed several options. For example, carriers could offer BBM as part of a standard “talk and text” plan for entry-level smartphone users. Because of its extra functions, BBM would save customers from having to buy a data plan.
Or, carriers could offer an expensive plan that included BBM and other offerings from BlackBerry, including one gigabyte of cloud storage on which they could keep photos or songs. The carriers could then sell extra services such as radio through BBM. It would also make the wireless companies’ customers “stickier” – less likely to defect – since they couldn’t move stored data to rival mobile carriers as easily.
The SMS 2.0 plan was a throwback to RIM’s move a decade earlier to form partnerships with mobile providers and share revenues. It was a chance to make BBM the dominant chat messaging service, and would have created a new story
for the BlackBerry brand.
A few carriers responded positively to Mr. Balsillie’s initial entreaties and by mid-2011, he was calling SMS 2.0 the company’s top strategic priority.
To round out the strategy, and build a suite of cross-platform services, RIM made a few acquisitions, such as instant messaging firm LiveProfile. The service had about 15 million users and worked on Apple and Android devices, giving BBM the entrée it needed to those platforms.
But the plan deeply divided the company. BBM was still an important driver of BlackBerry sales. Making it widely available to competitors represented an added threat to RIM’s faltering handset business, led by Mr. Heins at the time. Many inside the company felt a cross-platform BBM made sense, but only when BlackBerry 10 was out. Mr. Balsillie and proponents of his plan felt that would be too late.
“It’s fair to say [the risk to handset sales] was a shared concern of everybody I spoke to,” said former RIM executive Mr. Spence. “But it was hard to deny the fact [carriers’ text messaging] revenue was declining. These carriers were looking for a solution and this was a potential solution.”
One former executive felt Mr. Balsillie was overestimating the revenue potential of his software-driven strategy. As Mr. Balsillie talked up SMS 2.0, Mr. Heins and his team increasingly cast doubt on it internally. “He was absolutely canvassing behind the scenes working to kill it,” said one company insider.
As for Mr. Lazaridis, he was supportive of launching BBM for rival operating systems, but was concerned about the costs and risks involved in building out the SMS 2.0 strategy, said a source close to the board. “We weren’t in a position to be investing in free services that required massive capital expenditure [and could provide] zero payback for maybe a few years if we’re successful,” the source said. Like others, Mr. Lazaridis worried about handset sales.
But Mr. Balsillie was increasingly convinced that SMS 2.0 was the way to go. After pitching the plan to CEOs of 12 of the largest wireless carriers in the world in late 2011, he believed he could sign up at least one major U.S. carrier – insiders say AT&T was interested – as well as Telefonica and one or two other European carriers. That’s all it would take, he felt, to convince others to adopt BBM en masse.
But other RIM executives who were part of the growing SMS 2.0 team also encountered resistance.
Mr. Balsillie was pushing to formally launch SMS 2.0 at an industry conference at the end of February, 2013. But with the company under mounting pressure to overhaul its top leadership, he and Mr. Lazaridis handed the reins to Mr. Heins in late January.
A few weeks later, Mr. Heins killed the SMS 2.0 strategy, backed by Mr. Lazaridis.
“We had to get the BlackBerry 10 out, and we couldn’t be distracted,” said a source close to the board. “Everything else was shelved. And if that meant getting rid of strategies that didn’t fit, or weren’t complete, or required resources, I think [Mr. Heins] did the right thing.”
The Globe and Mail requested interviews with Mr. Heins and with Barbara Stymiest, the chair of the board. The company declined, but agreed to agreed to provide answers to written questions.
Asked why he shelved SMS 2.0, Mr. Heins said in an e-mailed response: “There are so many [instant messaging] alternatives in the marketplace that we wanted to be careful to launch only when we felt we could clearly differentiate our offering.”