How BlackBerry could have saved itself

How BlackBerry could have saved itself

Summary: In an alternate reality, had different choices been made, Canada's crown technology jewel might have remained a mobile powerhouse.

An alternate reality where RIM went Android in 2009. Art: ZDNet

Recently I said that I was not going to put any more words into the subject of BlackBerry's demise.

Instead, I wanted to concentrate on the future, about what was likely to happen after the company was gone, and how might the void created by the company's departure might be filled.

I thought I was finished with those sorts of thought experiments. But with the transpiring of recent events that include an on-and-off acquisition roller-coaster ride, the ouster and replacement of the company's CEO this month as well as the departure of much of their management old guard this week, I still think about what the company could have done to avoid such a mess.

Four years ago today, in December of 2009, BlackBerry, then Research in Motion, was at a crossroads. Their OS 4.x/5.x J2ME platform running their traditional QWERTY phones and their latest touchscreen device at the time, the Storm 2, was clearly showing signs of age and needed replacement.

In 2009, Both the iPhone and Android-based devices were on the market for about two years.

RIM chose to wait until 2010, just after the launch of the first iPad, to purchase Ottawa-based QNX and pursue the creation of their own mobile OS DNA, leading to the development of the failed PlayBook tablet and BlackBerry OS 10 that runs on their current Z10, Q10 and Z30 smartphones.

There were many other things that went pear-shaped afterwards, but the decision to buy QNX was a key inflection point for the company and was the beginning of RIM's downward spiral, one which is characterized by a single word that has virtually become the company's trademark: Beleaguered.

What could have they done differently?

In December of 2009, I had a possible answer: Become an Android handset maker.

Now that I think about it, simply becoming an Android handset maker would have been too limiting and would have made them too dependent on Google, even if they would have ended up in a better place than they are now, and creating an ecosystem similar to Amazon's or perhaps even Samsung's.

What RIM really should have done is become platform-agnostic. They should have built an iOS and Android secure messaging client that could have been sold along with BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and deployed by any enterprise using existing sideloading methods, and they also should have developed their BBM for Android and iOS at the same time as well, during the height of its popularity, instead of years later.

Think about it. What if, instead of buying QNX, and attempting to marshal developers to build apps for it, had BlackBerry focused its energies on building a really solid messaging stack for all of the existing mobile OSes instead?

There's no telling of whether or not BES support could have been integrated into iOS itself, much like Cisco and Microsoft licensed their respective VPN and messaging technologies. But I have to think it was a strong possibility had RIM's management wanted it there, rather than adopting a "Not invented here" philosophy that characterized the company for so long.

And at least as Google's mobile OS is concerned, they could have worked with Samsung, HTC, LG or any number of OEMs and carriers to build licensed BlackBerry-enabled handsets running Android, and even on Windows Phone, when it was released in 2010.

I don't want to get into discussing the technical merits of QNX, because I have gone on record in the past praising its capabilities. Indeed, there were initial problems with the PlayBook that were so infuriating such as a lack of a native email and PIM client and requiring a BlackBerry handset to "Bridge" that it was doomed to failure.

But those were not QNX issues. They were product-specific and it was a software development gap on part of the PlayBook product and engineering team.

The issue of the QNX acquisition was never a question of its raw technical capabilities as an RTOS and its basis for BlackBerry 10, it had to do with bringing yet (another) OS platform onto the market which required so much effort to bring it up to par with competitors' offerings and to go through such a long and arduous hardware development process for the company's smartphone designs to work with the new OS that it became a massive distraction. 

Think about it. What if, instead of buying QNX, and attempting to marshal developers to build apps for it, had BlackBerry focused its energies on building a really solid messaging stack for all of the existing mobile OSes instead? As well as creating a clear path for migrating legacy J2ME BlackBerry OS 4.X apps to Android?

I have said many times that BlackBerry's strengths were in secure enterprise messaging and its interest in consumer tech was a dangerous distraction

The current path under BlackBerry's new leadership is to make BB 10 more Android-compatible and allow sideloading of APK files, as a last-ditch effort to bring the platform into relevance. I beleive those efforts will undoubtedly fail.

It's certainly possible that the company is indeed Beleagured Beyond All Repair (BBAR) and any efforts to alter course are futile. But I'd like to think that in an alternate reality, had the company made different choices, Waterloo would still be prospering.

Could RIM have made different choices that may have altered their destiny for the better, or did they just simply execute badly and not quickly enough? Talk Back and Let Me Know. 

Topics: BlackBerry, Android, Enterprise Software, Networking, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • LoL

    you wanted Blackberry to become another HTC instead of Blackberry. I think there is some royal thing if Blackberry dies as Blackberry instead of like HTC.
    Ram U
  • Correction

    The Storm 2 shipped w/ OS 5.x, not 4.x.
  • Completely wrong leadership

    While Jason's idea of concentrating on the message stack might have saved them, he fails to recognize that the two founders of RIM were gtadget geeks, more oriented towards the hardware than the software. They were simply the wrong people to lead RIM to make that kind of change of direction.
    • Actually...

      I wrote about Lazaridis and Balsillie in a dedicated piece last year.
  • Well... maybe

    I believe there are many different ways to do something right, from cooking, to software architectures, ... even completely different political systems can be just fine.
    BB got reckless, they were too late and execution was terrible. They were becoming a smaller player, in a mobile world where we count devices by the billion, I agree, they should stop developing their own platform and choosing something else. If they wanted to have just one platform, android would be the obvious choice, but they could be agnostic like the author said - but for now only android and ios are relevant.
  • Captian Hindsight

    Jason Perlow aka Captain Hindsight, please use your incredible powers for good, not evil.

    PS : it's not over and if you happen to know the winning lotto tickets numbers, thanks in advance!
  • More of the dumb.

    BlackBerry could have saved itself by buying QNX earlier, and immediately making the Playbook and BB10 phones support running Android apps natively without having to put in a debug token or have to do fun tricks to port them. They had the capability the whole time and they didn't want to play their trump card.

    But no, they wanted to have a complete ecosystem like Apple, instead of delivering a platform capable of doing everything everyone else did, but better.
    Jacob VanWagoner
    • QNX and native Android apps would have done it

      Jacob VanWagoner's comment about QNX and native Android apps hits the nail on the head. Also, as others have said, a QWERTY device, maybe a slider along the lines of the 9810, could have been a huge seller. BlackBerry, then RIM, shot itself in the foot. As it is, the Z10 is a nicer phone in so many ways compared to the iPhone, especially for multitasking, email handling, and the whole user interface, but with the lack of apps (up until now) it just doesn't sell. The leaked but still-in-beta 10.2.1 OS allows seamless incorporation of Android apps (APKs). It's just too little, too late, for the company.
    • App store

      using the google play/app store system... They don't make money on those apps, they need the app revenue to pay their bills. (didn't work)
  • It would seem ...

    that even a MINOR investment of time and resources into bringing out a Physical QWERTY Android based device could have given them an alternative future which had hope. Nokia (the other well know Physical QWERTY manufacturer) decided to leave the Android Space alone (and we see how well they have done). The market MAY still bear room for an excellent Physical QWERTY device with Android OS. It will be interesting to see if anyone fills that void (older Blackberry's are being abandoned so fast that before long they may be forgotten and the chance of any momentum lost).
    • physical keyboard is key (pun unintentional)

      Upgraded from my Torch with slideout keyboard to a Q10 and am *super* happy with the BB10 responsiveness and keyboard. To me, the "best" BB would be a current torch-like device, whether that be Z10 or Z30 in size, but with the keyboard.

      As a screen-only device, the Z10 / Z30 doesn't offer enough to entice someone to switch over from a different screen-only device, although if you are a message-centric user with limited use of games, a Z10 / Z30 is really worth a look.

      The Q10 retains the appeal of a keyboard, which by itself is may be enough for some people, although game-heavy users (more consumer-oriented than business-oriented) would probably be better suited to a larger screen. For me, the Q10 is a compromise in screen size and I will upgrade to a Torch-style device if it is ever offered.

      The BB10 QNX o/s is lightning fast, and on an LTE network the messaging and browser responsiveness is amazing. As a message-heavy user (and that includes social media), I do not think an android or iOS device can match it (and that is with comparison to actual devices in use by my family). BB still has a chance at (smaller) success with a business-oriented and niche-consumer market, but not as a mass-consumer product, at least not today.

      I hope they stay in business, because the day I need to drop BB10/QNX for iOS or android will be a sad day.
  • Slave to Google

    I don't think your scenario would have changed BlackBerry's bottom line. But it would have made them beholden to Google and that is a compromise they were not willing to make nor would it have been a viable long term solution.

    The road they're going down now could turn out to be the right one. The have a secure OS they control and now have access to the large repository of Android apps.
  • BlackBerry still viable option

    The BlackBerry 10 OS and phones are good quality and intuitive, still with features iPhone doesn't have. Good specs. Good build quality. BlackBerry now has to focus on better marketing. They still outsell HTC, and I have yet to see doom and gloom stories about HTC
    • You're the only one that gets it.

      Not only does BlackBerry have features that iPhones still don't have, and outsell HTC, they outsell Motorola, too. Amazon has a new Verizon Z30 for $99. Porsche Design just released their P'9982 BB10 phone.

      BlackBerry 10 and BES 10 is the only smartphone approved by NATO for "Restricted" communications.

      Every week, more and more businesses are migrating to BES 10 and BB10 - Financial Technologies India, KPMG, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, National Police of Columbia.

      Rumors of BlackBerry's demise are exaggerated.
    • Better Marketing

      I remember when high school girls loved Blackberry devices because they are so good for texting. RIM completely ignored this demographic. A couple of years later when BB was already struggling, I saw a TV ad showing a young musician extolling the virtues of Blackberry's video/music capture and editing tools. Who edits their music on a phone? It seemed RIM's marketing department had no idea which consumers liked their phones or why.
  • Secure messaging it is!

    I think the piece is spot-on. Blackberry's real selling point is secure messaging. If it were just mobile messaging, Windows Mobile, iOS and Android had/have better applications. Why do I say this? A (BB) platform that strips all emails of its formatting and delivers lifeless plain text cannot be considered faithful in message delivery. Windows Mobile, iOS and Android all preserve email formats. If BB had marketed its real strength - messaging security - and offered it to all other platforms, the company would have made far more money from royalties.
  • Does Open normally win against Closed?

    What if BB made QNX Open Source early enough to win the hearts of the will be Android developers?
    • QNX, prior to its acquisition by RIM, started moving towards open source

      But RIM reversed it (similar to what Oracle did with OpenSolaris upon acquiring Sun).

      As for winning, this has nothing to do with open source. Has HP's open sourcing of WebOS helped any? All Google achieved with the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) was to enable a race to the bottom with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ArchOS and many other less well-known manufacturers. However, with open source Tizen (a MeeGo derivative) on the horizon, the race to the bottom would have eventually happened anyway. In addition, there's now a lot more Android-based devices running old versions of Android that sport numerous unpatched security vulnerabilities. And, sadly and unbelievably, this includes many OHA-manufactured Android devices.

      IMO, the open sourcing of Android has not helped Google and the OHA. How are OHA members HTC and Acer doing? It has helped ordinary consumers and the education market, as decent quality, low cost tablets, especially, and smartphones are now available for purchase.

      P.S. I've read that Google makes significantly more money from iOS-based search (read advertising) than it does from Android-based search.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • WebOS?

    They should've bought and developed a replacement OS much earlier than 2009 but when WebOS became available (not sure of the timing) there was an opportunity to have a ready-baked OS that was light years ahead of BB10.
  • BlackBerry believed enterprise was key

    BlackBerry didn't realize that the consumer was ultimately key to sales through the byod cconcept. IT departments are paid to make long term decisions, 3 to 7 years out. Consumers were typically tied to 2 year contract upgrades, a generation in cellphone technology. As Android and Samsung push the envelope more than once a year, BlackBerry fell 3 generations behind. The slow moving IT guys couldn't turn in time. Samsung has the capacity to out spend every one other than Apple, Microsoft, and Google.