When I was working on the UK’s best known computer magazine I wanted to be a motoring journalist. Those around me all had similar affectations. They wanted to write about music, travel, food, arts. We might have enjoyed what we did but there was always something else we wanted to be.
Companies are the same. They might be great and successful but they always aspire to be someone else. Particularly if they get a taste of that something.
And this is the problem for Blackberry. Here was a company which built the phones its founders wanted to use. Mike Lazaridis described himself as “A Focus Group of One” and they built excellent products. Features were added “Because I want it”. Devices that suited suits. Corporate America beat a path to their door and much of the rest of the world followed. They succeeded in getting secure systems into major companies. Something Nokia had tried at and failed. When the mobile world spelt “security” WTLS and the internet world spelt it SSL, the internet world won. That RIM got something new into the most conservative IT systems in the world is an incredible achievement. It’s so secure I’ve heard tell of spooks, those who trust no-one, using it.
The devices built on this, although I mourn the loss of the jog dial from the very earliest of Blackberries, the UI was super-productive, all the features are still there. Using T to get to the top and B to the bottom, intelligent use of the space bar in email fields to generate full stops and @.
Nothing does email like a Blackberry, it’s quick and efficient. Even when Microsoft tried to do to BES with Exchange Server what it had done to Netscape with Explorer the guys from Canada came out on top and for a very good reason: they had a good product.
Then 14 year old girls found how Totally awesome LOL BlackBerry Messenger was. These were users who not only used text and BBM as the prime means of communication, they didn’t even configure their email.
The timing for this was perfect. Blackberry had long ago won all the corporate and governmental users it was going to reach and the small business market was starting to go the same way. Growth which have been accelerating wasn’t going to do so any more, but come the teens and that was masked by being the new cool device in the playground. We ended up in the ironic position of senior executives asking for iPhones and their daughters wanting Blackberries, and as much as the executives IT carers and the networks lamented the iPhones limitations on security and signalling they had to give in.
This however isn’t a long lasting position. Executives will drift back to the devices which make them more productive. A keyboard is. Angry Birds is not.
Worse, teens are fickle. Today’s Uggs are tomorrow’s Crocs, and technology falls out of favour every bit as much as impractical footwear.
It’s put Blackberry into the bind it is in today. Instead of building the best possible email device, RIM went after the new users. Pink Pearl anyone? Then trying to fix all the things that made a Blackberry not an iPhone. Buying the company Torch to have a less-crap browser, The Storm and 9800 making a pigs ear of touch.
One thing you may have noticed about Mike Lazaridis is that he is not a 14 year old girl. The principals of “Because I want it” are not the same as those of “because I’m worth it”, and we ended up with marginalised phones.
Like my writing friends RIM wanted to be something else, to be Apple with tablets, entertainment products and music. It’s not right for the company. The Java-based platform is dreadful for games. Look at Bejewelled on a Blackberry against an iPhone or ‘Droid and the quality of the animation is so poor it affects the gameplay.
Deep down RIM is in an enviable situation. Unlike all the Android manufacturers it has some very special core technology and product differentiation. There is a real reason why you’d by a second one rather than flip-flopping between a Motorola, HTC and Samsung. For RIM there is all that security and the guiding hand of company IT departments and this must be seen as the solution for the current woes.
When I say “this” I mean both RIM’s position of strength and its rivals position of weakness. First Blackberry must go back to building devices which compromise everything else to do email well. Not compromise email to do other things in a mediocre way. Remember first generation Blackberrys didn’t even do voice. Perhaps they should even go back to black and white and use e-ink. Rather than trying to be an iPhone they should be something an iPhone is not: a device with a week’s battery life.
Second they should abandon the teen market before it abandons them, and do it in a smart way. Licence BBM to one, just one, Android manufacturer. Make it expensive, charge them ongoing costs for running the service as well as an up-front royalty. But who could refuse? Offer it to a company which isn’t a great rival in North America, and I’m thinking Sony (Ericsson) here. For both companies it could be market-moving. All those teens who will abandon their Blackberry anyway and are trying to make The Big iPhone Android Decision will jump away from Apple and yet Blackberry still makes money from it. To an Android phone maker with only brand as a USP it becomes a massively competing reason for the teens to buy their phone over anyone else.
Sticking to your knitting is always a wise move. Perhaps that is why, two decades on, I’m still writing about IT.
Simon blogs about phones and accessibility at Fuss Free Phones