BlackBerry’s Uncertain Trajectory: This Time It’s Personal

BlackBerry-system-failure-001I read somewhere that 55% of people judge others by their mobile devices. Boy, am I in trouble.

I have been wanting to write about BlackBerry for a long time and figured the only way it would happen is when Research In Motion, otherwise known as RIM, went out of business—a “remember when”, R.I.P., or marketing case study type of thing. And even though the name RIM is gone as of earlier this year (hoping to erase the sins of the past?), BlackBerry is still standing, at least for now. In fact, it just released the BlackBerry Z10, their version of “catching up to the rest” that might just save the company. The company even received an order this past week for one million of the devices. On the other hand, their new “creative director” Alicia Keys sent her first tweet about the Z10 from an iPhone. A dubious restart to be sure.

Though I’m not holding my breath that BlackBerry gains the dominance it once had, I do hope they survive. Two reasons: We love an underdog—The Britney Spears turnaround. Martha Stewart. Bill Clinton (or the perpetual Lindsey Lohan, ready to implode at any moment). Either way, America loves a comeback kid. But perhaps more importantly and selfishly, I really love my BlackBerry. At the risk of sounding like a red-blooded male, I love one of its body parts in particular: the keyboard. So yes, I’m following the marketing saga; I also need to assess if switching to a touchscreen keyboard is in my immediate or long-term future.

Truth be told, I never planned to buy a BlackBerry (Does anyone? It’s usually a company’s mandate). I had an HTC back in 2007, but like a bad sitcom, while working a trade show for a client, the CEO’s millennial daughter asked to “play” with my phone and dropped it so hard it broke. My client kindly offered to buy me a new one, but to be “nice” I dismissed the pricey $600 HTC in favor of the thrifty $150 BlackBerry. At first I thought I got a raw deal: I, a consultant, was now a corporate minion and drone? Despite my best intentions to dislike the Company Man’s mobile phone, however, I appreciated the ease in setting up the intuitive functions and its lightning-fast email. I also loved the keyboard—great for detailed client emails on the run (who knew it would turn into an addiction; yes, a “Crackberry”). And it was a pretty burgundy color, icing on the cake. Now that I’ve invested five years of my mobile life into this little device, I am forlorn to switch even if there are way better, sexier, dare I say, smarter smartphones out there.

Which brings us back to the sad reality of constancy of high tech change. Back in the day, BlackBerry was the de facto corporate mobility solution—The first smart, compact email device that most large companies relied on. At the height of its popularity just before the smartphone explosion, RIM owned 20% of the market. Even President Obama gave an unintentional endorsement during the 2008 election, “insisting” on keeping his BlackBerry when he became President. Typically a paid endorsement like this is worth $25-$35M. Today, BlackBerry could only dream of snagging a plug of this caliber.

As played out in public, the smartphone market, once a wide open space, boomed even bigger each year with Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android, Samsung’s Galaxy, Microsoft’s Windows phone, and more (and more) crowding the marketplace. With each new competitor, BlackBerry’s top dog status was chipped away at. Worse, RIM was akin to a deer in headlights. As acutely stated in Fast Company’s Shakespearian-like history of BlackBerry’s rise and fall, “RIM was a victim of its own success: it couldn’t simply abandon its customer base, nor could it easily update its aging operating system.”

Add to that, RIM’s comings and goings of executives, network outages, poor acceptance of their Playbook tablet… the list goes on. Their marketing plunge—at one point losing 75% of the company’s stock value—couldn’t have gotten any worse than December 2012, when they held on to a paltry 6% market share of the mobile device market (25% of which are smartphones).

Despite these bleak stats, it still ironically maintains a decent position today as the sixth most popular device maker in the world, which ain’t too shabby in this crowded market. In fact, as of December 2012, there were 80 million BlackBerry users in 91 countries, with over 500 mobile service operators. Little-known fact: the highest penetration of BlackBerrys is in the Caribbean and Latin America, which some attribute to the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) being “drug cartel” friendly as conversations can be fully deleted  (I also like BBM, not because of the incognito factor, but its zippy combo of email and text-like functionality, not to mention it’s fun).

Flash forward to right now: the Z10 might be the magic tonic BlackBerry needs to rise from the ashes. As suggested in Blackberry Must Ignore Market Share, the counterintuitive point is made that with so many phones available and new ones continuing to crop up all the time, BlackBerry should focus on survival of the fittest: getting back in the black, building more and better apps, and creating an inviting environment for third-party developers. In other words: (Re)build it and they will come.

Whether or not BlackBerry survives, the fact is that the former Homecoming King has shriveled into the last kid to get picked for a gym class game and needs to build up its marketing muscles. A comparison can be made with the uphill battle that once “dumb phone” leader Nokia now faces, and how it will likely never return to its number one status. Nokia also got behind the mobility curve ball—too far—launching the much-hyped Lumia very late in the smartphone game last year to a lukewarm reception. Like BlackBerry, once at the top of the heap, Nokia is now at the bottom of the barrel.

Let’s see how the rest of 2013 shakes out: We might be witnessing the beginnings of a full-blown comeback. Like GM, Apple, Yahoo, Lego, and other brands once on the verge on bankruptcy or obscurity but persevered for a second wind, BlackBerry could be added to the list. And as a bonus I could keep my phone. Win-win.

And no, I didn’t write this blog on my BlackBerry keyboard—but I could have.

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