Greetings to all my fellow techies. This week, I want to examine the sad, strange tale of BlackBerry, which at least in terms of government service, flew to unimaginable heights, but now seems poised to topple into the abyss. So, what happened? And does BlackBerry have any magic left?
I remember the first BlackBerry I ever had, the RIM 950 Wireless Device. It had an amber screen, a little hardware keyboard and a flashing red light to let you know it was working. It was also primitive by today’s standards, requiring you to leave your desktop computer and your email program powered up all the time to enable email forwarding. So, it was a desktop application that drove it. But you could receive messages wirelessly using the cellular network, and more important, send messages back out from the device. Nobody had ever even considered anything like that before. The craze had begun.
I personally never got addicted to a BlackBerry. In fact, my RIM 950 was confiscated by my assistant at the time, and I didn’t even argue too much because it had sat idling on a shelf for a few months before he claimed it. He set it up on his computer and used to get all these ridiculous emails at all hours. I remember being at a dinner party at his house, and he jumped up three different times when the RIM 950 alarm sounded. It was all spam from classmates.com, one of the biggest spammers at the time, and we all had a good laugh at his expense for taking it so seriously. But I could see where email on a mobile device could become really important for some people, even addictive.
BlackBerry made some really smart moves, too. The company concentrated solely on the enterprise, government and business markets. That meant beefing up security and limiting what most of the devices could do, which was just fine with the people who used them. Close to 100 percent of mobile business in government was with BlackBerry back then. As a reporter at the time, I didn’t even really need to ask about it. If someone had a wireless workforce, it was assumed it was based on BlackBerry. It would have been a big story if they were using something else.
But of course, the consumers found them too. Oprah named a BlackBerry device as one of her favorite things in 2003, and a plethora of stars followed suit. With dropping prices, everyone could get one. And for a while, it seemed like everyone did.
I suppose in hindsight, the consumer embrace could have been the turning point for the company, still known as RIM at the time. What it probably should have done was to create consumer models of its devices that were different from the ones used in government and with corporations. The consumer devices could have been less secure, but more flexible about what they could do.
Basically, consumers really liked the connectivity of the BlackBerry devices at the time, but not the form factor and not how limited they were beyond email devices. Then in 2007, Apple released the iPhone. A year later, Android devices began to hit the market. Nothing bad happened to RIM at first, but the company made the mistake of not innovating to match what would become the new market leaders.
I didn’t get to personally meet anyone from RIM at the time, but I suspect the attitude of the top people from the company were similar to those I experienced at Palm Computer a few years before its fall from on high. I was meeting with a Palm executive at the Comdex Computer show in Las Vegas. We were sitting in a cramped back room behind Palm’s booth, and he was supposed to be showing me the Palm IIIx with 4 megabytes of memory.
I told him I saw other devices at the same show with 16 megabytes of memory and sleeker form factors. And I told him those other devices were doing some really cool things beyond just being a personal organizer. But he seemed unconcerned, telling me no mobile device would ever need more than 4 megs of memory, and people would still buy Palm handhelds because, well, because they were Palm devices. He was pretty miffed with me after that, and the meeting didn’t go very well. But I was sincerely trying to warn him about the world outside of his little back room. I knew for sure the company was doomed right then and there, but to this day don’t know why it couldn’t see it.
Back to BlackBerry. By 2010, most consumers had jumped ship, or were at least putting on lifejackets. I think BlackBerry thought because it had such an inroad with government, it wouldn’t matter. There were still notable people, like President Barack Obama, who were using their device.
But it was clear BlackBerry was no longer innovative, at least not like before. When Apple released the iPad, BlackBerry responded with the PlayBook, a device that didn’t even have email at first. It was a pretty huge failure.
I think the company failed to realize that when consumers jump ship, their companies and their governments will follow. Consumers are people. And people make up government. If someone is enjoying using an iPad or Android phone at home, but finds the experience with BlackBerry at their work to be sub par, they are going to complain. When everyone is complaining, companies and government will change.
Today, I still write stories about the government, but almost nobody is bringing on new BlackBerry phones. Even at the state and local level, it almost never comes up anymore. The Guardian is reporting that even the president is considering dumping BlackBerry now, too. Consumer carrier T-Mobile is also jumping ship, stopping its sale of all BlackBerry devices as of April 25. BlackBerry executives are trying to spin it like they walked away from that deal. But we all know who dumped whom.
This brings us to the reason I started thinking about BlackBerry this week in the first place. Reuters reported BlackBerry CEO John Chen was gearing up to drop all hardware sales for their devices. BlackBerry has sunk so low at this point, everyone believed it. But now, Chen is coming out and saying the story is hogwash, and that all his comments were taken out of context. It was a whole “We have not yet begun to fight!” moment.
There are some bright spots left on BlackBerry’s horizon. It recently earned the coveted Authority to Operate certification for Defense Department networks. That could mean a lot of military deployments for BlackBerry, as well as peripheral industries like the contractors who serve alongside military personnel. I’m not sure that will be enough to sustain the entire company, but perhaps it can build on that and come out with new gadgets and gear to allow for secure communications without limitations.
I’m not one to say BlackBerry is dead. I’ve seen innovative ideas turn the tide at other companies. But the company is certainly on the ropes. I think this will be the year that something happens, either a rebirth or re-branding, or a quick ride into oblivion. I’m personally still pulling for BlackBerry, but don’t know if it has anything left in its tank. At least it had a pretty good run, and lots of fans who still hold fond memories of their first experience with wireless email communications.