[RIM’s acquisition of UI firm TAT marked the largest mobile software M&A of 2010. Research Director Andreas Constantinou explains why the acquisition places RIM a leap ahead of the top-10 OEMs in terms of UI capabilities and asks – can RIM execute on the promise?]
In December, RIM surprised industry observers by buying TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), a 200-strong UI technology and design firm based out of MalmÃ¶, Sweden. At nearly $130 million, RIM’s move marked the largest mobile software M&A transaction of 2010 globally and an impressive 5.5x multiplier over TAT’s 2009 revenues of 170 million SEK. It follows a string of RIM acquisitions since 2009, namely QNX (operating system), Cellmania (content billing and distribution), Dash (two-way navigation), DataViz (document viewer), Torch Mobile (WebKit experts) and Viigo (software house).
More importantly, TAT’s acquisition places RIM a leap ahead in the league of top-10 handset manufacturers in terms of own UI capabilities. Here’s why.
A leap ahead of the competition
TAT was founded in 2002 by 6 games engineers and designers out of university (here’s their story) but has come a very long way. TAT is not just another technology company. It has seen its Kastor 2D/3D graphics framework deployed in over 500 million phones across 5 out of the top-7 OEMs. More important to the RIM story is TAT’s Cascades product, a UI framework that allows OEMs to design their phones not in terms of applications, but in terms of screens, allowing what can be termed â€˜rapid variant management’ (more about that later).
TAT has also been clearly ahead of the UI technology vendor pack – vendors like Ikivo, Digital Aria, Acrodea, Bluestreak, YouILabs and Scalado – thanks to its design skills. When other vendors have banked on technology marketing, standards implementation or operator deals, TAT has used its design skills to get into the door of both OEMs and operators/carriers (check out this video on the â€˜future of screens’). The marriage of design skills and technology licensing allowed TAT to build momentum and cash-flow when OEMs were cutting budgets post-2005. These same skills were what got TAT the deal to design Google’s Android 1.0 UI. TAT’s strength lies in the combination of UI framework technology and the first-class design skills – both of which are now with RIM.
So what does RIM get?
TAT’s acquisition is far more encompassing than many would have thought – it puts RIM a leap ahead of the pack in the league of top-10 handset manufacturers in six ways:
1. Match the iPhone
With the Cascades technology, RIM can now match and even exceed the sophistication of the iPhone UI (see this and this video demos). Long term this means RIM has a chance to contain the exodues of enterprise customers opting for replacing their RIM with iPhones due to the outdated UI and usability on the Blackberry OS 6. Heck, it would be even easy for RIM to offer â€˜deep skins’ for BlackBerry handsets where the navigation and core apps closely resemble the iPhone apps.
2. Rapid variant management
TAT’s Cascades is a departure from how OEMs build handsets today, by allowing the UI to be designed in terms of screens and not applications.
The downside is that Cascades-enabling an existing software stack means that legacy â€˜spaghetti’ applications have to be ported one by one on top of TAT’s framework, which takes 9-12 months for the complete UI (it’s 10s of millions of lines of code that have to be ported). This is what has historically limited Cascades to only tactical wins for specific applications on Motorola, Samsung and Asus handsets.
The upside is that with Cascades RIM gets rapid variant management; creating 100+ operator variants from a single vanilla UI is just a button (and an XML file) away. Designing in screens rather than apps means that RIM can keep its investment into messaging, graphics and enterprise middleware but radically change the UI look and feel. This allows RIM’s carrier customers more differentiation and exclusivity opportunities, all without delaying the time to market – and therefore securing the carrier multi-million subsidy and marketing carrier budgets.
Rapid variant management is today one of the few domains where Android suffers and Nokia’s Symbian still excels, so a very important differentiator for RIM once the integration work is out of the way.
3. Consumer and enterprise personas
We covered earlier how RIM needs to escape its dual personality disorder by designing separate consumer and enterprise product lines. However, designing a different set of apps for enterprise and consumers is complex – not to mention managing many more device models and variants in the field. With TAT, RIM buys the ability to have enterprise AND consumer UI personas ship in the same phone – not only that, but in a way that can be easily switched by the user at the flick of a button. Switching between enterprise and consumer personas is also much cheaper to do at the UI level rather than the bare metal level with what’s called â€˜mobile virtualization‘.
This implies that with TAT’s technology, RIM can allow users to switch between consumer and enterprise UI personas; a consumer UI when you want to browse on Facebook and check out Flickr and an enterprise UI when you want to check the email attachment for your next meeting. Note that Nokia and HTC Sense have also implemented basic switching between work and personal skins.
4. Enterprise UI customization
Besides the runtime technology, TAT develops Motion Lab, a tool that a designer can use to define UI screens and UI flows through a drag-n-drop environment. For RIM, this means that enterprises can customize the phone’s navigation to focus on the few key applications that are used most of the time. It also offers RIM a level of enterprise customization beyond what other OEMs can achieve out of the box.
5. UI personalities
With the erosion of the market of downloadable ringtones and wallpapers, the industry has turned to apps as the next premium content market. Yet, there are still new revenue opportunities in downloadable content. In Japan, DoCoMo has led the market of downloadable UIs in the form of “standby screens” (programmable home screens), and which Acrodea has extended to the dialer and menu apps. This has created a small market of downloadable UIs for both DoCoMo and KDDI.
With TAT, RIM can extend that market to the world, and across more embedded applications – creating what can be called the market of downloadable UI personalities. Whether RIM can turn this capability into a new â€˜market’ is questionable, but it certainly presents a unique point of differentiation and an opportunity for a new revenue stream for RIM.
6. Connected experiences
With the acquisition of Dash, a 2-way car navigation company, RIM has its sights set beyond phones and tablets into the automotive segment. To deliver a consistent UI across these varied form factors a new OS (QNX) is far from adequate. It needs a portable UI technology that allows RIM to reuse its UI assets with minimum maintenance overhead across different form factors, from phones to cars. TAT’s Cascades is exactly this technology and as TAT has shown, it can be extended to connected screens in the living room, in the street, in the car, and in the hands.
Filling in the gaps that TAT left
With TAT out of the picture, how can other OEMs catch up to the level of UI technology sophistication and design skills? There’s a variety of UI technology vendors out there (see below for an extract from our Mobile Industry Atlas), but none really combine the UI â€˜screens’ framework or the design skills of TAT.
Many companies claim to have “UI frameworks”, but they all invariably mean a combination of SVG engines, 2D and 3D graphics toolkits or compositing engines – which address UI development as an application, not a screen paradigm. Historically there have only been three companies who have developed screen-based UI frameworks; TAT, Digital Airways and Next Device. Digital Airways was behind the UI of the Vodafone Simply series of five handsets launched between 2005 and 2007 and the Porsche P9522 handset introduced by Sagem in late 2008; the company has since transitioned into UI services in mobile, embedded, automotive and aerospace – however the company ceased trading sometime in 2010. Next Device was acquired by Mentor Graphics (makers of the Nucleus RTOS), who didn’t manage to leverage the technology asset as the licensing model was markedly different to Nucleus’ site-licensing. The gap that TAT left creates an opportunity for other UI middleware vendors (e.g. Ikivo, Acrodea, Digital Aria, Sasken,) to maneuver into this technology space.
Another way to deliver ‘screen-based’ phone design and variant management is via development tools; much like how OpenPlug (now Alcatel Lucent) uses the Adobe Flash IDE to create mobile apps. However this is still virgin territory and we â€˜re not aware of any sufficiently advanced UI tools vendors in the mobile domain.
Can RIM execute?
All in all, TAT can deliver Apple-class user experience that offers RIM a strategic advantage compared to OEMs leveraging 3rd party Windows Phone and Android platforms. This all sounds great on paper of course, but it’s all a question of execution.
Can RIM’s corporate monoculture adapt to the creative minds of TAT? Will the TATers get the mandate and budgets to innovate deep into RIM’s product lines? How long will RIM take to integrate the TAT technology on top of the QNX platform and where will the competition be at that point?
Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.
you should following me on Twitter: @andreascon
[Andreas Constantinou is Research Director at VisionMobile, and oversees the research, strategy and industry mapping projects at VisionMobile. Andreas also served on TAT’s advisory board during 2008-9]