It's time to call it: The Blackberry will never rise again

For the past couple of years, we have been waiting to see whether Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry, could rise to meet the challenge of iOS and, later, Android. And for a while, we were hopeful. Looking at RIM’s past and brand loyalty, there was much reason to believe they would succeed despite Apple and Google’s onslaughts.

But yesterday, two news stories came out that were symbols of RIM’s (probably permanent) decline. The first was that Apple has enough cash to buy the entire mobile phone industry. The second was that RIM themselves have halved their internal projections for their Playbook tablet sales.

They’re both ominous signs. The first is about just how massive the problem of competition is. And the second is that, even with a product with some promising ideas, RIM can’t deliver products people want.

But why has this happened? Let’s, sadly, perform the pre-emptive autopsy.

 

They're too slow

We recently learned the reason behind the Playbook’s lack of an email app: BIS, the backbone of Blackberry’s services, can only deal with one device per user account/PIN.

That’s reasonable enough. But it’s also a sign that, in terms of broad infrastructural changes necessary to support a modern tech ecosystem and the coming of the cloud, RIM are moving at a glacial pace. And if, under such pressure, RIM isn’t able to accelerate the pace at which they innovate, then how can they move forward?

Similarly, the work on bringing the great QNX OS to their phones is taking forever. Certainly, it must be an immense amount of work. But it’s also simply taking too long, as competitors release model after model and upgrade after upgrade.

 

They're too far behind

What’s worse, however, is where this slowness will leave the Blackberry.

Let’s assume that a wizard came along, waved a wand, and tomorrow the Playbook had an email and calendar app and all new Blackberry phones shipped with QNX. Where would that leave RIM?

Well, they’d have products that were maybe on par with some of the competition in some aspects. That’s it. That’s where things sit. Blackberry is months behind simply playing catchup to their competitors. What’s more, with iMessage, their primary advantage of BBM is also now damaged.

So the problem is that even if RIM can catch up, they’re still too far behind to ever get ahead of their competitors. What magic innovation of both product and ecosystem will allow them to stop the decline of marketshare? Market loyalty? Email security? Ease of use? Do these sound like problems Apple or Google will have trouble cracking i the long term, if they haven’t already?

 

They've lost their cachet

For many years, a Blackberry was a status symbol, something that told the world you were someone. That was a big deal, because with the release of the Pearl, it drove consumer adoption. No more.

There are still some people (mainly outside the US) for whom the BB holds some cachet. Mainly it’s professional creative types who want to show that they’re serious. It’s still big in the fashion world and, surprisingly, Hollywood too. After all, who doesn’t have an iPhone these days? It’s almost as if the Blackberry could be a way to differentiate yourself.

But it really hasn’t worked out that way. The coolest apps end up on iOS, while the more geeky, ‘hacker'(ish) cred goes to Android. Moreover, the desire we have for products has network effects; it spills over through social networks, both online and off. If  a Blackberry isn’t considered cool, it’s more than about ‘rep’. It';s about purchse intent. And when your product is no longer considered cool, the only reason someone will get one is functionality. And beyond the legendary keyboard, what is there that a Blackberry does that another phone doesn’t?

 

They have no ideas

So, let’s pull out our wizard again and wave an imaginary wand and say Blackberry was perfectly on par with Apple and Google. So then what? What vision is there for a Blackberry phone or tablet? Is it an interface vastly better than iOS? Is it for an openness more welcoming than Android? Is it the cloud? Is it a seamless media experience?

What overall dream is there for the Blackberry brand that will make it a compelling alternative to other devices? So far, all I can think of is “the keyboard”, and when your key advantage is something very easily replicated, you’re doomed.

 

Solutions?

Are there any options? Any hope for Blackberry? Almost certainly not. Still, it’d be wrong to present a post like this without some possible avenues, if nothing else, just for discussion.Whether or not these are doable or feasible is a question I shall leave for you to answer in the comments.

  1. Once again, court the high-end. The iPhone has become the smartphone everyone has. If Blackberry can regain their status among tastemakers, whether through design or for-pay cloud services, it may help reverse their fortunes.
  2. Produce an integrated, seamless media experience that is less restrictive and device-specific than iTunes. It’s true Google is moving into this space with Google Music and movies on YouTube, but if RIM can actually provide a compelling media argument, the consumer will have  reason to listen.
  3. Play up the keyboard. If it’s your only (fragile, limited) advantage, you may as well promote it.
  4. Arrange a single data plan for multiple devices with major global carriers. Learn from Apple: make things easy for the user.
  5. Sacrifice a large sea animal to the gods or create a CEO mega zombie from the body parts of history’s smartest people. Look, I said I was reaching here.

Is there any hope for RIM? No. But if you disagree (or strongly agree!) hit the comments and let us know.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
SEE MORE ARTICLES BY "Navneet Alang"

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Comments
  • Anonymous

    The solution might be found in combining your points 1 & 3 and courting the high end set through highlighting the keyboard as the focal point for the Blackberry being for business and the rest of the phones out there toys for children.

    This isn’t a huge reach in that (from my hazy recollection from owning one) the Blackberry is far easier to use (due to the keyboard) for texting and emails.  And beyond that, as opposed to the iPhone (recollection crystal clear from a dropped call a few minutes ago), the Blackberry is  a very nice phone to use for making phone calls – as retro as that idea might be.

    I’d shift messaging from Blackberry is cool/functionality/games to it being pure business.  Maybe even use that as a tagline. Blackberry. Pure Business.  Creative example would be a sharp, good looking business woman on her BB, surrounded by tools playing Angry Birds, Facebooking, etc.  Then later show those people f’ing up at work, late on deadlines, whatever, while sexy business lady chills with her work already done and done well.

    Looking up at a story above: 1 of 4 apps used only once.  That definitely proves there are a lot of people that don’t want a smart phone for f’ing around all day.  Play to those people.  Show them respect and give them an out for not wanting anything other than a phone they can use for text, email, calls and simple web browsing and the occasional Facebook or Twitter check.

    Probably just staving off the inevitable, but I don’t see many other choices for them.

    Great, thought provoking piece.  Thank you.

    • Jahzzmusick

      Great maketing ideas you have….you should seriously consider pitching them to RIM b/c i think it would fly high.

      Peace

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.rovelo Greg Rovelo

    You hit the head of the nail. i have a BB and i have been feeling like this for quite some time now. although i had been hopeful that RIM wasn’t dead and twitching like it might have seemed  to the world. 
     I do acknowledge RIM’s great potential in the battle of consumer electronics, which is why I was still hopeful, but until maybe a couple weeks ago i was hoping RIM was just being fashionably late instead of M.I.A. I guess i grew tired of waiting. its either get on the train or miss it… or catch the late one that no one’s on. im getting on the Iphone train when the 5 arrives. i’ll wait for RIM’s products from up there.

    • http://twitter.com/SteveO6290 Stephen Williams

      You took the words straight from my mouth!!!

      • O.M.E.N

        I have a Sony Ericsson Xperia x10i. Not a wise choice on my side, but probably ruined Android for me. First it launched with Android 1.6 and, I think at the time, many Android phones were on 2.0 or 2.1. Then SE announced they were going to update the x10i with 2.1. At that time, most phones had Froyo (Android 2.2) for almost a year. And recently, an announcement that the phone will run 2.3 was made. What do notice in that text? We never got an official 2.2 update, the most popular Android version. I too am also jumping onto the iPhone 5 wagon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Bell/100001788867831 Mike Bell

    RIM died 4, 5 years ago when they laughed at iPhone and thought they were invincible and didn’t plan ahead for the possibility that Apple was onto something. Since then, Apple has been widening and deepening their moat and RIM has not even tried playing a catchup. Now that iCloud is about to be released, RIM and every other manufacturer that can’t match iCloud’s services will have really hard time surviving.

    For what is worth, Nokia’s dead too and so is Sony Ericsson. All three of them won’t last through 2012.

  • http://twitter.com/a_cross Allen Cross

    Problem is, the arguments you list are exactly the same ones we saw from Nokia (and their loyal users) right up to the end of 2010. 

    And look where it got them. Just because you haven’t seen it speeding past you, that’s no proof that a wheel hasn’t come off your bus.

  • http://twitter.com/a_cross Allen Cross

    Sure – their free, robust messaging service is one of RIM’s key distinguishing features. Lots of kids (and their parents) buy Blackberry phones for that reason, alone, especially given the low prices we’re seeing due to RIM’s aggressive discounts. 

    That’s why I don’t see iMessage being such a big deal that it draws many new customers. And I find it hard to believe that iMessage will prove to be a Blackberry-killer or even much of a conquest-maker among current Blackberry owners.

    No, a certain (significant) portion of BB users will continue to drift away for the same reasons they’ve been doing so since 2010: RIM offers no new, cool (ie: desirable) models nor any which compensate for the benefits of Android & iPhone apps.

  • Kris0521

    Hey rimuser, need to ask you something bb related. add me up. 2101E47A

  • possibilities

    I think the Blackberry’s server based services is being ignored. Most commentators and analyst make their assessments based on the surface. The true beauty, however, remains underneath of the surface. It may well be the way the future will be as there will be more need to process the data before it hits the screen of your phone. Blackberry should be ahead of the game in that direction and must maintain it if they are to survive. They may go to survival mode before this turn around happen.

  • Anonymous

    I think the New Bold Touch will get them back on top. And for anyone that keeps criticizing the PlayBook – you probably have never used it and compared it to other tablets – don’t judge until you have used it – it is a great tablet that has lots of features including the fact that it is more portable than iPad 2

  • Puddlepuddle

    Blackberry phones can’t compete at the moment, apart from as phones where the audio quality is far higher than an iPhone. I own an iPhone and I’m happy with it, but frankly I play music more than I call people.

    The Playbook blows the iPad and every other tablet out of the water. It’s more responsive and far more flexible. And, well Flash. If the rumoured 10″ version is released later this year RIM are laughing.

    • Pcdiggs

      That may very well be one of the most ludicrous statements I’ve ever heard. Come on; be real. Let’s say you had amnesia that temporarily erased your memory of the last decade (including any ideological biases you may have for or against certain companies). Then; the iPad 2 and the Playbook were given to you for your examination. Not knowing the release dates of the two products (because of your amnesia), you would certainly conclude the Playbook must have been released 10 years earlier than the iPad 2, because it is so primitive and relatively antiquated in comparison. Be real. I have both devices (the Playbook was a gift); and seriously, the Playbook does not compare in ANY and EVERY area – be it casual, business, gaming, infinite apps, aesthetics, performance, ease of use, speed, productivity, lack of bugs, and just overall enjoyment. Anyone who says the Playbook is superior is not being truthful or objective, and is obviously harboring a bias that is blocking their reality and creating a delusion.

  • camilo cervantes

    focus on third world market… BB is still fashion there

  • Ivandp

    If Line 2 (Toktumi) came to the playbook, I’d ditch my iPhone4 in a hot second (I’m a MAC user), ditch AT&T and just use a playbook with VOIP.  $100 per month for a phone??!!  We’ve all been way to conditioned by greedy corporations to pay way too much for their services.  As for the iPad — no flash and way to big to be portable.

  • http://bodek.uwindsor.ca Bodek Frak

    You keep saying that the lack of the mail app on the PlayBook is a limitation. I don’t see it that way at all. Why would I need another mail app, if I can easily access my e-mail, calendar, contacts, journal/notebook using BlackBerry Bridge? That’s for my corporate e-mail. For personal e-mail, PlayBook comes with shortcuts to all major cloud/webmail offerings, GMail, Hotmail, etc. I prefer this solution 100x better than what Apple offers on their devices. I love my PlayBook, would not trade it for iPad even if you paid me.

  • http://bodek.uwindsor.ca Bodek Frak

    You said “They’ve lost their cachet”, and that BlackBerry is not considered cool anymore. Wrong again. My daughter, who recently turned 19, decided that she was ready to move from the regular cell phone to a smartphone. I was sure she was going to get an iPhone, but to my surprise all she talked about was the BlackBerry. I even tried explaining to her that she will not be able to get all the cool apps for BB since these are still mostly available only for the iPhone. That did not seem to matter to her. She said “most of my friends have a BlackBerry and they actually hate the iPhone”.

    I was puzzled by this, so I asked one of the professors at the University where I work to conduct a little informal survey in her 150+ student 1st year class (we use clickers, so it was an easy task). The question asked was: “BlackBerry, iPhone or Other?”. Guess what…. Majority of students stated that they prefer the BlackBerry!

    BB 53%
    iPhone 38%
    Other 9%

    This was in March of this year. My daughter ended up getting her a BlackBerry with BIS and she loves it. The best part, she says, is the BBM. Something that the competition does not have.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree with this post. Like I’ve been saying:

    RIM is the past, Android is the future. Get on the train.

  • Anonymous

    Ya, I’ll wait to find out what happens to my email during my visits to Dubai before I trust them on data security.  Their battery life has been matched or exceeded by some competitors.  And their keyboards are good but only a marginal advantage.