Go back ten years and the BlackBerry handsets available then were post-PC devices by a number of important measures: they were relationship-centric, they were appliance-like, and using them required little cognitive load. They were simple, always-available, always-connected devices that did the job of keeping people connected with their digital network fantastically well.
I've been at BlackBerry Live in Orlando this week, and in his keynote speech, BlackBerry's CEO Thorsten Heins laboured a couple of very interesting points.
He spoke again and again about "mobile," about how mobile compute devices would be the only important type of compute device going forward. He distanced himself and his company from the PC (the implication being that death of the PC would relegate it to niche use in the enterprise), always reiterating his focus on mobile.
Regardless, it was what Heins said in the press Q&A afterwards where things got interesting.
The session started with a few questions, and Heins kept on his "mobile, mobile, mobile" mantra.
This was widely reported as being that Heins thought, "tablets would not be important in five years time." What he actually meant by this, and as he now clarified in the Q&A, was that Heins believes in a vision of "modular computing." He spoke (and reiterated many times during the talk) of the idea of the "phone on your hip" being everything you need, the idea being that if you want a "large screen experience," you go up to some dumb display and mate the two together.
Just in case you were wondering whether that answer was just an anomaly, a little later someone else asked the same question and got the same answer. Heins believes in one device to rule them all.
This troubled me, as modular computing suggests a level of complexity that is incompatible with post-PC. The beauty of post-PC is that it requires no complex thought to use it, i.e. it has very low "cognitive loading." Another way to put this is that you don't have to muck around with something to make it work.
For example, you're working on a presentation on your PC. It's late, and you want to go to bed. You shut the lid of your laptop, retire to the bedroom and pick up your tablet to watch some Netflix. Except your tablet doesn't work because it's modular and takes its processing horsepower from your phone. So you get out of bed, and you find your smartphone, and you plug it into your dumb, modular tablet. Except your smartphone doesn't have any power. So you have to find a charging cable. But the charging cable doesn't reach to where you want to prop the tablet to watch TV.
So you give up, and pick up your modular Kindle-esque e-reader. But that requires your smartphone. You close your eyes and count sheep. The following week, your spouse buys you a new smartphone. It's now a different shape and no longer slots into the back of your dumb tablet, so you buy a new dumb tablet.
Et cetera. Modular computing is too complicated. Plus, we've been able to do modular computing for 20 years and no one has ever used it to life-changing effect.
However, modular computing appeals to technologists because it salves their rage against the inherent inefficiency in post-PC machines. Post-PC makes no sense from an engineering perspective. In the post-PC world, having both a smartphone and a tablet that do roughly similar things is something that users do without thinking about it. But that is so inefficient — two screens, two batteries, two persistent data stores, etc. Technologists love to try and combine these things together and create what they wrongly call "convergence."
What they're actually describing is "hybridity" — this being the basic process of combining things together to make a new thing. The problem is that not all hybridity experiments work. An hybridity experiment to combine a portable cellular telephone and a compact camera did work, and we ended up with the cameraphone.
Only when a hybridity experiment works do we get convergence (as per the cameraphone).
But those experiments fail more often than not. I hate to point the finger at Windows 8 and it's OEM partners, but those guys are giving a masterclass in how to fail at convergence 24/7 at this point by making a continual stream of hybrid rubbish that offers no converged value. This also applies to Windows 8 itself, a good demonstration of why sticking together two different operating systems with duct-tape doesn't automatically create convergence.
The grand plan
Back to Heins, and the part where I get confused. On the one hand, you have a CEO who seems to understand ideas around the death of the PC, relationship-centric computing, post-PC, etc., but seems keen to actively avoid pushing his vision into the tablet space. If tablets are going to be replaced by some modular computing doodad or doodads, surely Heins would like to be the one to tell everyone how it would be done?
But there isn't any leadership from Heins in this direction. I get that marketing is complex and it's not a good thing to confuse, but if Heins is talking with authority about the tablet going away, surely it would be a good idea for him and his team to set the tone of that discussion with more clarity.
If you don't know about Secure Work Space, it's a very interesting product. BlackBerry devices in enterprise settings have always terminated behind the firewall, meaning that a BlackBerry device running against a BES is treated as a private device on the private side of the firewall at all times. Secure Work Space will allow iOS and Android devices to link directly behind the enterprise firewall, too. It's a hugely important, unique product that got about two sentences in the keynote. It should have been the whole keynote.
It's possible to read this "playing nicely with others" tactic as leading into BlackBerry giving up on handsets and just becoming a services company. Is that what's happening? I don't know. I doubt it. But it is a tactic that might, in a de facto sense, stop BlackBerry from needing to making devices.
Listening to Heins talk yesterday, he clearly wants to be an industry leader, positioning BlackBerry to demonstrate to the market their ideas about how mobile can work.
But, if by migrating the unique value in BlackBerry to its competitors means that it has to stop making devices, Heins loses his leadership position entirely; the quadrumvirate of CEOs leading post-PC becomes a triumvirate, leaving just the voices from Microsoft, Apple, and Google.
How about if Heins gets out there and shows his 5-10 years vision ideas in a much less nebulous way? Setting up a research division and inviting experts to get involved might be one idea.
Xerox PARC invented a lot of the ideas around post-PC through their work on ubicomp — maybe such an idea can work for Blackberry, e.g. a "BlackBerry PARC." An organization like that could gain respect and following even if they didn't produce any actual devices.
What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.