Monday, January 23, 2012 at 6:03 am.

RIM can’t save itself

Thorsten HeinsNew Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins — previously a co-COO at the BlackBerry maker, in charge of product and sales — is too little, too late.

Unless Heins is secretly a rare, freakish visionary genius whose creativity has been stifled by his former bosses for all these years — he’s been at RIM since 2007, right when it started to get into trouble — he’s not going to save the company from its decline.

The reality is that RIM’s relevance to smartphone innovation stopped five years ago when the iPhone completely changed the definition of what a phone should be.

While RIM was a mobile email pioneer, Apple blew past with rich web browsing, the App Store, a better, touch-driven experience, and incredibly powerful and beautiful software. Google Android followed up as a strong number-two, even beating Apple in market share, but not product. But RIM has suffered with uninspiring software and hardware, losing its high-end relevance, and finding most of its growth — before it started shrinking — in the mid-to-low range of emerging markets.

Two things could save RIM now: A sale or a miracle.

Selling the company would make the recovery and salvage effort someone else’s problem. However: What’s left of RIM that would actually be useful to another company like Microsoft probably isn’t worth much, at least relative to what RIM probably thinks it’s worth.

Or RIM could somehow — in theory, but let’s be honest, this isn’t happening — completely reinvent the smartphone again, the way Apple did in 2007. (This is the “miracle” scenario.) The trouble with this, beyond the fact that miracles just don’t frequently happen, is that there’s no evidence that RIM has the talent, leadership, or time to do this. (And it’s not like Heins’s old bosses are going far — they’re both on the board, and Mike Lazaridis is now leading some sort of “innovation committee”.)

Consider Palm, Motorola, Windows Phone, and other similar comeback efforts — all with arguably better resources and management than RIM. None has succeeded yet, Palm is finished, and Motorola managed to sell itself to Google to help in a patent war.

On the bright side, in the meantime, RIM’s new CEO has plenty of levers to pull under the guise of figuring out a new model: He could license the BlackBerry email service or OS to other phone manufacturers, try building BlackBerry on top of Android or Windows Phone software, cancel or double down on its PlayBook tablet business, make plastic keyboard accessories for the iPhone, cut more staff, bring in some outside help, launch more ad campaigns, whatever.

In the best-case scenario, RIM could stumble onto a smaller but sustainable business. But the odds of returning the BlackBerry to glory are minuscule. So I wouldn’t be surprised if RIM is eventually sold. But to whom, when, and at what price?

Related: The big problem with buying RIM is that there isn’t only one big problem

Also: RIM’s rise and decline: A 10-year view