BlackBerry took the BlackBerry out of BlackBerry

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
BlackBerry took the BlackBerry out of BlackBerry
In the wake of the news that BlackBerry seems to be finally ready to face the music, it left me wondering if the company left itself at all appealing to any would-be suiters out there. Tragically, and perhaps not ironically, BlackBerry finds itself in a position that another Canadian telecom darling, Nortel, found itself in just ten years ago.

Perhaps in a parallel situation to Nortel, whose demise started when the internet bubble burst, and then there was a complete failure to assess the market and respond, followed by Canadian government bailouts, BlackBerry finds itself on similar footing. Nortel’s downfall had a creeping pace too, only to be resolved by what would be vultures picking at patent leftovers starting with bankruptcy in 2009. It did not have to end that way for Nortel, which could trace its roots all the way back to 1895, but lack of vision, Canadian pride, and government regulation all but ensured that the company would go right into the dustbin.

To that point, the Canadian government just provided a back door bailout to BlackBerry via financing to Telefonica for purposes of buying roughly $260 million worth of BlackBerry devices. Telefonica did not need that money, taxpayer backed financing gave the world’s fifth largest carrier ostensibly free money to go shopping with. It is still a far cry from the CAD $1 billion that was doled out to Nortel however.

Despite these parallels, I have high hopes for BlackBerry 10 as a platform, but I am not so hopeful about the new hardware that is apparently in the works.  If the A10/Z30/Aristo is going to be the "Hail Mary," there may be no turning back and the damage may be too great.  The dedicated, albeit shrinking, following is being wooed by gear that is already arguably superior right now, never mind in November.  Maybe BlackBerry needs to go back to its roots as a business centric device, I believe there is still a market for business as the “Bring-Your-Own-Device” (BYOD) movement is not consistent across the enterprise.

Self-inflicted Wounds


When it comes down to it, many of the issues that BlackBerry created with BlackBerry 10 are new in-and-of-themselves. What’s worse is that those issues tore away at the heart and soul of what made BlackBerry devices truly special in the first place.

It is not unusual for someone to say that their first smartphone was a BlackBerry. That was not the case for me, my first smartphone was a Samsung SPH-i700 running Windows Mobile going back a number of years, but I can say that a BlackBerry was my first smartphone at the beginning of the real smartphone revolution. It was a BlackBerry 8800 on AT&T issued to me by my job at the time.  The transformation had begun.

Without turning this into a swan song about the days of yore and taking you through my journey of smartphones, I can tell you that the 8800 prompted me to buy a BlackBerry for my personal line (it started with the Storm and the journey continued from there). BlackBerry was at the cusp of a vibrant community of developers and the platform lent itself for many people to develop their own themes for BlackBerry which took customization in many directions.

Then there was the functionality of BlackBerry itself, of which, it could be argued the competition was able to reach parity and now exceed in some instances except in a few very convenient and key areas. Now the comparisons I am making can argued any number of ways, but the points I am making here are that these things were native to BlackBerry long before any other platforms even approached similar feature sets. In the current environment though, they are gone and that is why BlackBerry took the BlackBerry out of BlackBerry. It can be narrowed down into some basic areas.

Discrete Notifications


Granular customization of notifications used to be a cornerstone of BlackBerry, as were some of the notifications themselves. Even non-BlackBerry users could identify the legendary “lightning” sound of an incoming email message. The sound evolved moderately up to OS 7. On BlackBerry 10, the sound itself was gone, the selection of sounds were severely curtailed and the the settings of notifications was no longer available. To its credit, BlackBerry brought those features back through software updates, but the question must be asked, whose idea was it and why was that agreed as a good idea to implement in the first place?

Bedside Mode


Another great feature about BlackBerry was the bedside mode when plugged into a charger. The scale, sound and volume of notifications could be customized here too, and the feature itself could be turned off if you want. When enabled though, all you had to do was plug in your phone and it was ready to wake you in the morning if you wanted. That nifty convenience is also missing from BlackBerry 10.

To a lesser extent, the official BlackBerry accessories, the charging docks that were available for many devices were also part of experience. Purpose built for the flagship and most mainstream devices, these were super-convenient way to just drop the device in place, it went into bedside mode, and it was your clock, alarm and whatever else you had locked in via the settings. Those accessories are gone.

Themes


Then there were themes. Themes were more than a user’s ability to customize the experience on their BlackBerry, Themebuilder was a great tool in that just about anyone could create their own customization for their device. The ecosystem for themes was very robust, with a lot of people making some killer designs. Themebuilder allowed people to build designs that used to be native to BlackBerry on pre-OS 6 devices, like “Today” type set-up where you could get a glimpse of your schedule, tasks and emails on the lock screen. Themes on BlackBerry 10? Gone, but to be fair, they were gone before 10 hit the market. Now, the screens of applications are not much different than the stale, static grid of iOS.

BlackBerry Internet Service


Finally, there was the dismantling (not really since the legacy OS is still supported) of what was the ultimate cornerstone of BlackBerry, BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) and its corporate counterpart, BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). BIS was a double-edged sword, it provided the ultimate in push-email notifications, but it also did not provide IMAP style access. This was where the legendary security of BlackBerry hailed as well. However, as we have seen in the past, when the service went down, it often crippled devices for hours (or sometimes days) on end. Now BlackBerry 10 uses the same protocols that other platforms use, so if your email provider does not support push, it will poll just like any other handset.  If you have an Exchange server, EAS will connect you in lieu of the highly customizable and amazingly robust BES (which did incur extra costs for many companies in exchange for highly customizable IT policies). Did BlackBerry 10 mandate a wholesale departure from that model?

The arguments could be made either way, but my point is that now, BlackBerry 10 devices have virtually zero differentiation from other platforms, except for apps, of which there are fewer of them.  BlackBerry 10 was supposed to bring a whole new experience to the table, and while I am not saying the company needs to go back to its Java roots, 2.5-inch screens and spotty performance outside of the core of BIS/BES functions, terrible web-browsing, and the other grinding issues that were liabilities to BIS, I am saying that BlackBerry needs to find a way to show the world what the BlackBerry experience is at its heart despite being something new. The question is how does BlackBerry do that? It cannot be done with apps, even if you use the line for porting Android applications and even if they work, any user expects a native experience on their gear, and straight ports will only work so well. It also looks like BBM exclusivity will be a thing of the past. Email is handled just like any other platform now. What else is left? Only BlackBerry 10 and BlackBerry World.

The Savior


The QNX platform was supposed to be the savior for BlackBerry, and it had all the ingredients to do just that. We can all agree however that BlackBerry did not manage the development of QNX into an operating system all that well. The PlayBook was fine hardware and BlackBerry Bridge made it somewhat functional since initially it did not have any native ability to handle contacts, calendars or tasks (another great decision which we have all shook our heads at in disbelief). Such system updates would arrive nearly a year after the tablet would hit the market. For the handsets, BlackBerry 10 all but removed the heart and soul of what made BlackBerry truly unique as a whole.

For the handhelds, the far more important sector to BlackBerry, it is fair to say that the world was waiting with anticipation about what the new smartphones would bring to the table. Desite its shortcomings, the PlayBook showed the world how well the QNX based OS could perform overall. When it was announced that BlackBerry was going to forego the holiday shopping season last year in order to make BlackBerry 10 “right” and ensure it was not half-baked at launch, I was genuinely concerned. I thought to myself at the time, “How can this not be a Manhattan Project style initiative?”

Move Mountains or Get Diverted


When survival is on the line, deadlines do not move.  Deadlines cannot move.  Deadlines must not move. The decision to debut BlackBerry 10 in the first quarter (January) of 2013 instead of the fourth quarter of 2012 might have had the biggest impact compared to the other shortcomings I have already outlined. Indeed, the Z10 would arguably have been a contender against the Galaxy S III, iPhone 5 and most importantly, the new collection of Windows Phones. That absence allowed Microsoft and its partners to generate a considerable amount of momentum, and it raises the honest question if there is room for a fourth “major” operating system in the current landscape when there is barely room for three.

While we can also lay some responsibility at the feet of the carriers, they really did not have any choice. They too must work with the market conditions as they stand, and they were working with a swell from the iPhone 5 and new Windows Phone gear coming into the New Year. By then, anticipation was already beginning to build for the next onslaught of Samsung Galaxy devices and the HTC One. In the end game, the carriers must compete with an ever more saturated market with the products they have on hand to win customers. Moreover, carriers around the world have been making it well known they want more than just a couple or few options available to their customers. When strong shopping and buying events come along and a guest does not show up with the goods, understandably, some eyebrows are going to be raised. BlackBerry made a decision to not be a part of that solution, it chose the diversion.

I could also make the argument that Jim Balsille and Mike Lazaridis were permitted to remain at the helm by BlackBerry's (then RIM) Board of Directors for far too long.  In a mad dash to respond to Apple and subsequently Google, just about everything they touched turned to rust, not gold.  That speaks to the independence of the Board itself as well as decisions being made on the basis of emotions rather than the realities that affect the lives of thousands of people that work for BlackBerry and the millions of people that use BlackBerry.

No Clear Path Ahead


It goes without saying that BlackBerry is facing some difficult decisions ahead. Being acquired by another company is not a guarantee. BlackBerry has a host of neat technology within its patent portfolio, which is arguably the juiciest part of the company. Going private preserves the company as-is, but guarantees nothing. Acquisition means that some shadow of the company may ultimately continue, but we all know how such deals wind up in the end, the Canadian government is notoriously on-guard against foreign takeovers of homemade enterprises. A partnership seems feasible, but it is difficult to see how that partnership ends up being a net-gain for BlackBerry. Another option is for BlackBerry to pick its carrier partners in developed markets itself, that does not seem likely. Indeed, there are no guarantees.  However, if BlackBerry can attract a couple key institutional investors to take up significant stakes in the company and allow new talent to flow into the company, a hybrid solution may work in its favor.  A publicly traded, yet closely held company, would allow some autonomy to operate without such a critical eye from analysts, permit BlackBerry to continue as an independent company (pleasing Canadians), as well as make some incredibly audacious and sorely needed restructuring for the company.

Put the BlackBerry back in BlackBerry


In trying to reinvent itself, BlackBerry threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Core functionality and trademark "BlackBerry-isms" were never the problem.  Even outlier parts like SureType were extraordinary assets as that compressed-QWERTY showed the depth and talent that BlackBerry had behind the plate.  The issues were simpler, the hardware was stale and the OS had reached its limits within the existing architecture.  BlackBerry needs to put the BlackBerry back into BlackBerry and show how the platform that garnered such a devoted following still keeps to those roots and now has a fully stocked hub in BlackBerry World that is an order of magnitude better than the old BlackBerry App World. That may not mean a return of BIS, and that is understandable, and BES is a whole new animal for the enterprise, but there are some discrete strengths to the BlackBerry 10 platform in hardware and software, such as great physical and on-screen keyboards, word prediction and spelling correction that rivals Windows Phone, a stable and clearly capable operating system, and perhaps its biggest asset, BlackBerry Hub. Played right, BlackBerry can keep its piece of the OS pie from shrinking further and start rebuilding the brand. If Nokia can stem the tide against it and change the way people look at its products, BlackBerry can do the same for its own brand.

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