Cisco and RIM: Hard Times, Different Situations

A morbid debate has ensued as to whether Cisco or RIM is in worse shape. It’s an unseemly discourse, but it seems obvious to me that Cisco, regardless of its current woes, remains in a better, stronger position than RIM, both today and well into the future.

That said, let me be absolutely clear that I believe Cisco has entered a period of decline, perhaps of the irrevocable sort. The broad industry trends — commoditized wiring-closet switches, stiff competition in the data center and the network core, the rise of cloud computing, and so forth — are not its friends. To make matters worse, Cisco is suffering from its own imperial overstretch, and from a cultural malaise that afflicts and challenges all big corporations that reach a certain stage of maturity.

Not the Same

This Cisco, the one you see today, is not the one that ruled the networking industry late in the last century and early in this one. That beast, which seemed so unstoppable on its path to dominance — capturing and keeping customers, charming partners,  drawing prospective suppliers, and dazzling industry analysts — seems to have left the building. It has the same head, figuratively and literally, but it’s uncoordinated now and tends to get in its own way at least as often as it bulldozes the competition.

Even so, Cisco is a long way from dead. It has a prodigious installed base of customers, some major partnerships that still matter, and a chance to step back, reflect on what’s happening in the market, and alter course accordingly. It won’t be easy — some believe Cisco’s leadership is better at building than fixing  — but Cisco need not slide into an industry abyss.

RIM, too, has an opportunity for renewal, but its situation is far more daunting. As with Cisco, the trends — an app-driven market dynamic; consumerization of IT and “bring your own device” (BYOD) to work; the strength of Apple at the high end of the smartphone market, Google Android nearly everywhere else, and low-cost competitors in the developing world; the rise of mobile-device-management (MDM) suites that can support heterogeneous mobile platforms — are not in its favor. Also like Cisco, RIM has lost its way, failing to recognize foreboding trends and lethal competitors until serious damage had been done.

Bigger Challenges, Fewer Resources

Still, RIM is worse off in many respects. First, it’s no longer an industry leader. It’s been usurped by Google’s Android and by Apple in smartphones, and there’s a danger that Microsoft, and perhaps even HP, could knock it further down the charts. Cisco, notwithstanding its current hardships, doesn’t have that problem; it’s still number one in enterprise networking (switching and routing), though competitors are chipping away at its market share and it has lost ground in other important, faster-growing markets, such as the application delivery controller (ADC) space, where F5 leads.

Furthermore, Cisco still has customers that will buy into the brand and the higher prices that accompany it. That could change — nearly everything can change — but Cisco retains that benefit today. There might fewer of those customers than there were a couple years ago, but the population of Ciscotown remains considerable. Unfortunately for RIM, the brand-equity die has been cast, and it has suffered a decline not only in the eyes of consumers but in many enterprises as well. Apple iPhones and iPads are proliferating in enterprise settings and vertical markets, often supplanting BlackBerry devices, at a rate few predicted.

RIM also has fewer resources than Cisco. True, it’s fighting competitive battles on fewer fronts than the networking giant, but Cisco has the option of reining in its aspirations and allocating its ample resources with greater strategic focus. RIM can only do so much.

Mitigate Risk or Roll Dice?

It’s ironic that, just a short time ago, some analysts and pundits were suggesting that Cisco buy RIM. My point is not to mock them — this industry will humble anybody who tries to predict its course — but to illustrate just how much a combination of strategic missteps and the vagaries of fate can change the game in relatively short order.

The best anybody out there can do is to find a balance between risk mitigation and success probability, which often (but not always) are closely interrelated. Sometimes, though, you need to take a big risk to qualify for a big reward.

Cisco can still play some risk-mitigation cards, while RIM needs to roll the dice.

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