BlackBerry's bloody nose

It's fair to say that RIM -- well, BlackBerry -- has been thoroughly beaten up over the years. Can they pick themselves up and come back fighting?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

The difference between Microsoft's and RIM's behaviour over the devouring of their smartphone business has been markedly different. Both companies were dealt a bloody nose by to the market, but I'm not convinced that Microsoft has ever really "owned" this fact. RIM on the other hand appears to be showing a genuine understanding of what went wrong.
Microsoft's behaviour can be likened to a teenager who petulantly storms upstairs to tidy his room because his mum has told him too. And yet next time his room is untidy, he won't notice, and it'll get worse and worse until he gets told off by his mum again. And then again. The products that Microsoft has produced in both Windows Phone and Windows 8/Windows RT in response to trandition to a post-PC world all fail to resonate adequately with this new market. It feels to me like Microsoft have gone "we need to do something about iPhone and iPad!" but don't really understand why.
Compared, RIM's behaviour is like an adult, able to reflect on past behaviour, and understands themselves well enough to authentically alter behaviour and make changes. What they've produced in BlackBerry 10 demonstrates a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of what's happened to their market and ably cuts a path from Old RIM to New BlackBerry.


What's interesting about BlackBerry-slash-RIM's old products is that if you go back to 2003, the way that people felt about and used BlackBerry smartphones is actually quite post-PC-ish. It's almost like RIM portended the coming of the change we're going through but much, much too early.
Post-PC is made up of a lot of different aspects, but one interesting one here is the idea of "need". People tend to develop almost a symbiotic relationship with their phones, becoming almost dependent on them to remain constantly connected into the relationships that are important to them. My argument is that RIM around the time of their heyday was delivering this kind of relationship-centric, "needy"-in-the-sense-you-need-it, always-connected, ubiquitous computing device but laser-focused onto a very small audience of people. If you happened to do a certain job, in a certain way, your BlackBerry handheld became something you just could not live without. That sounds like 2013-vintage smartphone.
What happened when the iPhone was introduced was that Apple managed to hit basically the same need but over a much larger market. BlackBerry users had been enjoying this nice post-PC utopia for years, but again only if you did a specific job in a specific way. iPhone brought post-PC to the whole market -- didn't matter if you did a specific job in a specific way, if you did any job in any way, or no job, you could enjoy relationship-centric, always-connected, ubiquitous computing. Android followed suit, and the rest is history.
Just three minutes into the BlackBerry 10 launch keynote, Thorsten Heins (BlackBerry's CEO) talks about the customers that they designed BlackBerry 10 for. The first thing he uses to describe this customer base is "people who are hyper-connected socially" (3m25s). This is post-PC. What he means here by "hyper-connected" is people who regard digital and real-life relationships as converging and that constant access into that social network is a need and not a desire. Next he talks about "people who have an appetite for getting things done" -- which I think is more of a sop (well, a bit less than a "sop") to the existing BlackBerry market, but then immediately talks about people who "need balance in both their personal and professional lives". Part of this is a name check for BlackBerry Balance, but what he's talking about here is the shift we're undergoing as a society where we're all having to adapt to a work life and home life being more intermingled. But, that sociological change is actually one that RIM was actually partly responsible for because of how their products let people behave -- checking email whilst at dinner with your spouse stopped becoming a technical problem and became purely a social one. 
Importantly, the messages from BlackBerry over this transition are deeply authentic. Nothing of what they're talking about feels like it's been hacked together by a marketing drone with little understanding of what's actually happening in the market. Compare this back to Microsoft, where things do tend to feel lacking in authenticity, that actually the only reason why products are shaped the way they are is because of data drawn through telemetry and analysis of possible target markets. Microsoft's post-PC products lack heart. BlackBerry's old products, although technically clunky by today's standards, did have heart and demonstrated a genuine understanding of and resonance with their user base. That heart and understanding has successfully transitioned over into the BlackBerry 10 product line.

In this way BlackBerry is like Apple. (Equally, RIM was like Apple if you'll allow the notional separation.) I don't think it's a coincidence that, in hindsight, both companies have been so important in developing the post-PC proposition. 


BlackBerry's challenge now is whether its first generation, reinvented product is good enough to compete with a broader market. The mistake it made when it was still RIM was to go after the consumer market where there was none of this post-PC resonance achieved from serving a certain person doing a certain sort of job. Coming back to post-PC and it's reliance on relationships, it's interesting that the only genuinely successful proposition that the old BlackBerry products had was BlackBerry Messenger, a product that is about nothing other than relationships. Everything else that they did in the consumer space was a total misstep.
So what's immediately wrong with BlackBerry 10?
In the consumer market, the app coverage is flat-out unsatisfactory. If it didn't have a good enough Twitter app on it (which is does) I honestly couldn't even use it. They've been out-maneuvered by Microsoft here. Microsoft set the standard for platform inception by making it all about developers. BlackBerry went after this seemingly wise approach with gusto, did it genuinely and generously, and a certain type of developer has bought in. What Microsoft did with Windows Phone 8 was "180" this approach entirely and focus internal developer evangelism resources into making sure that "46 of the top 50 apps" were available on Windows Phone 8 throwing conventional wisdom out of the window. It's been suggested that this is why Microsoft had that weird policy of closing off SDK access for Windows Phone 8, something they'd never done before. They needed their evangelism teams working with the vendors of the hero apps rather than "wasting time" supporting developers building apps that would have no oompf in the market. So now, Windows Phone 8 ostensibly doesn't have a problem with apps whereas BlackBerry needs to hope that their new customers don't want apps, which seems unlikely.
In the enterprise market, this is going to sound silly, but I'm mostly worried about the battery life. The old school BlackBerry user who does a certain sort of job in a certain sort of way is frankly just not going to live with the battery life how it is. I can get about 12 hours practical use out of my device. These sorts of people spend hours on the phone every single day. Talk time, which is critical for this market (still), is weirdly better. A 30 minute call takes about 4% off of the battery, suggesting the 10 hour talk time advertised can be achieved. That talk time is double what you'd get from a Bold, by the way.
What BlackBerry could do straightaway is roll out an option where you can have a bigger battery and a new back. Given that the Z10 has a replaceable battery and a replaceable back cover, that would be easy enough to do.
Other problems, that the gesture language is too complex, that you can get easily lost, a few bugs here and there -- these are all probably OK provided their systems for gathering feedback and pushing updates are slick. Importantly, I think BlackBerry 10 is "better" than Windows Phone because it's so much more sympathetic to the post-PC market and in that regard BlackBerry deserves the third-place slot in the market more than Microsoft does.
But, time will tell. Let's see how they do. 

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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