Blackberry: The Last Missed Opportunity

Over the next 48 hours there will be a lot of talk about the faded fortunes and inevitable demise of Blackberry (neé Research In Motion). Between the company being forced to kneel at the financial confessional today and the insider’s look back that will appear in the Globe And Mail tomorrow (hot tip: it features actual interviews with both Mike Lazaridis and Slippery Jim Balsillie, and you definitely want to read it) the amount of grist that will be fed into this particular mill will be astounding.

I haven’t seen the actual copy yet, but if Mike and Jim do anything but accept full and utter blame for all of this they are being either completely disingenuous or – even at this late date – they still don’t have even the barest understanding of what is going on. Either way, these aren’t guys I would trust to run a lemonade stand at this point, because the actual history is pretty clear:

2007 – Apple releases the iPhone, but anyone with even the tiniest shred of comprehension realizes that the “phone” part of this is just a smokescreen. This is really the first decently-powerful and pleasant-to-use pocket-sized computer, and the “phone” is really just another app. But by positioning it as a phone, Apple has a lever into familiar consumer ground and avoids the “tech shock” that can stall a truly disruptive new product. Every other handset maker in the world saw immediately what was happening and trashed their existing “smart” phones and replaced them with iPhone copies based on Android … every manufacturer except one. The management cabal at Blackberry’s head said “Apps, schmapps. What people want is a phone that can do email, period. Apple’s phone is pretty but ours does email better, so we will win.” At this point they set in stone what was going to be the corporate mantra for the next 6 years: Our way is the best way. Customers who want something else are wrong.

2008 – Along comes the Apple app store. Now your pocket computer doesn’t just do mail, web, messaging, weather, news (and of course, phone), it does … well, everything. If you can imagine it, there is an app for it. Now consuming, interacting with, and creating data on a pocket computer is even easier, since a one-purpose tool is almost always better than a “one interface fits all” solution. Developers flock to the new marketplace, users download and purchase apps at an astounding rate, iPhone sales grow exponentially … and Blackberry poo-poos the whole concept. All you need is a browser, they say (clever failing to see that even if that was true, their browser is a piece of unusable shit) and this app thing is just a fad. Remember: Our way is the best way. Customers who want something else are wrong.

2010 – Apple releases the iPad. With people now used to a decent mobile OS, the next step is to use it to the tablet (or compact computer) from being “something that you read the paper with on the can” to “a hand-held computing device that will suffice for a lot of people’s every day data tasks”. All of the other manufacturers again follow suit, quickly making Android-based iPad knockoffs. All except one, of course. Blackberry delays and waffles and when they do finally release a tablet, its essentially just an external display for an existing Blackberry handset. Because a tablet couldn’t possibly be anything useful unless there was a Blackberry to go with it, right? Repeat the mantra: Our way is the best way. Customers who want something else are wrong.

2010 – Blackberry acquires QNX. Okay, now we are getting somewhere. Having finally seen that a smartphone must now be a full-fledged pocket computer and have a proper touch-screen operating system, Blackberry goes out and buys a company that makes an excellent mobile OS. But do they use the already excellent QNX platform to reimagine and possibly recharge the dying Blackberry lineup? No, of course not. Instead they gut and cripple the QNX stuff – adding over a year to the development time and release dates of their “last ditch” handsets – to make it more “Blackberry-like”. Why? Repeat after me … our way is the best way. Customers who want something else are wrong.

And yet, despite more than five years of absolute bungling by the “we know better than you” draconian top-level of management, there was still a chance to right the ship as late as January of this year. Really. Blackberry had an ace in the hole … but they never played it. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that they never even knew that they held the card. Because while the marketing people focused on things that every other handset both already had and did better – the application switcher, the hub, the “flow” – they completely ignored something that would have set them apart from everyone else and could have made the Blackberry experience a superior one for a lot of people: A fully curated app store.

Built For Blackberry Splash ScreenEveryone knows that app stores on all of the mobile ecosystems are loaded with reams of unusable crap. Having to navigate the minefield of useless, knockoff, or outright sleazy apps is a pain in the ass on iOS and an absolute crapshoot on Android. If Blackberry had taken the initiative and offered up an app store where every product is vetted for quality, honestly, and user experience they would have had something that no other ecosystem could touch. They even had the groundwork in place for this with the excellent “Built For Blackberry” program – all they had to do was make this the only way to get apps into the store, instead of a specialized extra.

So did they grab this unique opportunity and run with it? No, of course not. Instead they ignored their own app and developer ecosystem to the point where the “Blackberry World” store is far and away the worst app store on the planet … and when you are competing with the giant steaming pile of malware and useless crap that makes up the average Android marketplace, that is saying a lot. Instead of the promise and prestige and user satisfaction of the world’s only fully curated application ecosystem, they are left with a store where almost a third of the apps available are useless crap from a single developer, and the Windows Live Messenger app is still listed on the “Most Popular Apps” page, five full months after Microsoft pulled the plug on the actual service.

Windows Live Messenger for BlackberrySomewhere the crew that was running the “Build For Blackberry” program must be chewing on their fists. Even if no one else did, they must have realized the potential there … but that would be potential based on extending and expanding on the capabilities of the handsets, and for the Powers That Be at Blackberry, that’s a non-starter. Why? Because Blackberries are perfect when they come out of the box. Who cares about apps? Or developers? Or the app store experience? Who cares that it looks like almost 40 percent of all handsets shipped this quarter are either unsold or returned by unhappy owners? What do they know?

Our way is the best way. Customers who want something else are wrong.

One comment

  1. A is for Apple says:

    As per usual, another astute blog entry. The biggest thing I encounter these days is the denial. If you say anything bad about RIM you’re labelled as a traitorous hater.

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