Blackberry’s Long March Back To Relevance

4/27/2013 9:16:03 AM

In the technology community very few companies draw the kind of rabid following and fanboy-like behavior as Apple does. Once upon a time, BlackBerry (or RIM, as it was then known) was that company.

In the years before Apple’s iPhone launch BlackBerry was synonymous with smartphones as a whole, having produced the first two-way pager in 1999, and the first ‘push email’ smartphone in the early 2000s.

The company has not released a new generation of smartphones since its purchase of QNX in 2010, which was supposed to launch the new BB1O operating system. Three years later and after endless delays and failed products, January 30 saw the launch of the BlackBerry ZiO, its first BB1O smartphone (see our review on page 44). Will this see a return to form for the struggling firm? Unlikely, but it could still carve itself out a niche in the business market, which is struggling to adapt to the consumer focused Samsung and Apple smartphones which dominate the 2013 marketplace.

A last chance at redemption?

In the last two years we have seen long standing CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis kicked out of the company, macho product launches mocking the superior competition (see the BlackBerry Playbook), drunken senior executives punching an air hostess on a flight to China (once stopped by other passengers, they even tried to chew through their restraints), attempts to sell the company and endless product delays that have pushed the temperament of the most die-hard fans.

So how did a company that once dominated the market so thoroughly end up the butt of so many jokes?

The answer is simple - Apple. Like Nokia, Motorola and the other giants of the pre-iPhone generation, none of these companies took the Apple iPhone threat seriously. BlackBerry’s senior management, with a dose of hubris, not only disregarded Apple’s entrance, they spent many years mocking Apple’s products, before producing their own knock-off variants, launched with the same arrogant contempt as before. Being arrogant and obnoxious when you’re on top is bearable; when you’ve fallen off the top, it just looks idiotic.

These problems were compounded by the fact that, like Apple, BlackBerry develops its own hardware and software eco-system. This worked fine for most of the 2000s, where the feature set on most phones was simple. When the market became more complicated (especially with the advent of Apple’s App Store in 2008), software arguably became more important than hardware. While most other handset manufacturers jumped on the Android bandwagon rather than risk developing their own OS’s, BlackBerry bought QNX and attempted to build its own OS from scratch. Not only is this a difficult undertaking (previous versions of BlackBerry OS were usually small, incremental updates going back to 2001), but no one (even Steve Jobs) foresaw the rise of the App Store marketplace as a key selling point. Apple and Google dominate this space, and as we have seen with Windows Phone, simply developing an OS isn’t the endgame anymore - it’s attracting developers to create the software that runs on your OS. BlackBerry has been absent for so long, it’s hard to see how they can draw developers in - even though its new hardware looks impressive.

The key products that made - and broke - an empire

BlackBerry Enterprise Server

BlackBerry Enterprise Server

While a nerdy sounding mouthful, this server was key to BlackBerry’s dominance in the 90s, and its continued longevity in the public service worldwide. This synchronizes email across the entire network and allowed for the development of ‘push email’ – i.e. your phone beeping and telling you an email had arrived, in real time (rather than you having to click refresh). Because it was centralized and encrypted, it also meant that BES email was very, very secure - unhackable, as BlackBerry boasted. This made it the number one choice for corporations and particularly world Governments, and most of its rivals, which were still using older email servers fell by the wayside. This is, arguably, the only reason why Governments are still using BlackBerry products. This is also unfortunately one of the reasons when the server fails, as it did in October 2011, a centralized model is not ideal - the entire network went down without any backup.

BlackBerry Messenger

Launched in 2006, this was so far ahead of its time, that even Apple didn’t launch its own iMessage until 2011. BlackBerry essentially foresaw the end of SMS messaging, instead allowing users to send messages to other BlackBerry users over the internet, instead of as part of a text and calling plan. Texts, effectively, were made free of cost. Especially in the UK, this has singlehandedly kept BlackBerrys in the hands of the nation’s youth - why pay extortionate rates for phone calls and SMS text messages, when you can load up a BlackBerry Bold with prepay cash and text for free?

BlackBerry Pearl 8100

This was BlackBerry’s first attempt at a consumer phone and it was a rousing success in 2006. It had an HTML web browser, push email capabilities, a then huge 1.33MP camera and a media player that supported video and music playing. Its color screen allowed consumers to personalize the device as they saw fit. Its successors added GPS, Wi-Fi and expandable SD memory cards.

BlackBerry 8800

BlackBerry’s first attempt at a consumer phone

This was effectively the first of the BlackBerry smartphones as we still know them today. Launched in February 2007, it featured a full QWERTY keyboard, and introduced the famed trackball which allowed the device to be used more like a computer. Until the iPhone launched at year end, this was the best online experience on a handset. The screen was a whopping 320x240 pixels with 65,000 colors which meant it was (then) as good as it got for movie and picture viewing, its processor and battery life were also excellent.

BlackBerry Playbook

Like most other tablets launching at the time, it suffered from a lack of apps.

This for many came to symbolize the end of what BlackBerry used to stand for. Released in April 2011 (a year after the Wad), it was subject to a whole host of embarrassing incidents. From the launch where Balsillie mocked the iPad, through to the recalls due to software errors. While technologically the device was actually pretty impressive, its software was unfinished - and didn’t allow users to check their emails unless it was physically tethered to a BlackBerry smartphone - a massive inconvenience for users. Like most other tablets launching at the time, it suffered from a lack of apps.

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