By a loyal BlackBerry user who doesn’t want to be laughed at anymore.
I’m a BlackBerry user. There, I said it.
Several of my work colleagues think my device is ‘quaint’ and laugh at my allegiance to a handset brand currently being hauled over the coals. I’ll even admit that after many years of loyalty my patience with RIM is wearing thin. But do you know what? I still enjoy BlackBerry devices. I like how solid they feel, I like how typing on a QWERTY keypad is still infinitely faster than a touchscreen and I like the fact that it’s a controlled hardware and software ecosystem managed by a single entity.
I’m not here to defend RIM’s recent strategy, there have been some woeful mistakes made. However, given the company’s recent battering in the press (and admission that it must refocus on the enterprise) I do feel compelled to state that the brand is far from dead.
When I got my first ‘proper’ job I remember watching middle management being issued with the first generation of BlackBerry devices. I was jealous. I mean really jealous. The notion of mobile email was new, and it was genuinely exciting. For me, owning a BlackBerry sent out a message. You were part of a club.
In retrospect I can admit that this was largely the folly of youth and (still?) points to a slightly misguided sense of what it means to be successful! But the anecdote is valid. For many years, the BlackBerry brand had a certain cache about it. It was a gold standard and it was trusted.
I was saddened when RIM decided to jump on the consumer bandwagon. I always felt that the Pearl and Storm devices were too watered down. They diluted the wider BlackBerry brand; they were too soft. They were too consumer focused. BlackBerry started losing its cache from then on.
But I can understand what they were thinking, and in a way I can empathize with the decision making at the time. RIM had got scared on two fronts.
Firstly it saw a growing consumer market and it wanted a slice of the action. Historically, smartphones had been the preserve of the enterprise user and early adopter. They were expensive, complex and of limited value to consumers in the days before widespread 3G coverage and unlimited data plans. That was all about to change. And change quickly it did. Within 12 months of the Apple iPhone’s debut, smartphones had started to ‘cross the chasm’ into the mass-market. More importantly, the rest of the industry aligned. Mobile operators started adjusting their business models around the smartphone; heavy subsidies and unlimited data plans made smartphones a legitimate consumer purchase.
It’s not surprising that RIM wanted a piece of the action. Who wouldn’t? But entering the consumer market undeniably resulted in a lack of innovation within their core market and it wasn’t long before BlackBerry’s ‘enterprise email’ party-trick started to look a little dated. Remember, business users are consumers too. They like a game of Angry Birds as much as the next person. It wasn’t a surprise then when they started lobbying to ‘bring their own devices’ into the enterprise. Overnight, RIM’s seemingly impenetrable fortress of BES deployments started to crumble.
At this point RIM’s value was being eroded from all sides. It had diluted its brand, failed to recognize the convergence of business and consumer use (instead of distinct product lines to both segments) and missed the app-store wave.
To the consumer market it began trading solely on price (the Average Selling Price of RIM product is half that of Apple) and to the enterprise market it became reliant on historical loyalty to hardware performance. I know many BlackBerry users, including myself, who stuck with the brand because of its bomb-proof build quality and exceptional battery life. But now, even this has been compromised.
Almost 12 months ago I was given an upgrade through work. I wanted to stick with BlackBerry. I’d seen how colleagues who’d moved to the iPhone struggled with battery performance. I wanted to be able to laugh at them as they scrabbled under the desks at 3pm to find a power outlet. So I chose a Blackberry Bold 9900; but my smugness didn’t last. Where its predecessor, the Bold 9000 used to hold out for days, the 9900 was suffering the same fate as the rest of the pack. One of the brand’s key selling points had seemingly disappeared. Couple this with some bad PR (email outages and the supposed role of BlackBerry Messenger in coordinating the UK street riots of 2011) and it’s understandable that consumer patience started to wear thin.
I’m reassured that RIM CEO Thorsten Heins has admitted that the company had spread itself too thinly, that it will refocus its attention on core markets and acknowledged that “Blackberry cannot succeed if we try to be everybody’s darling, and all things to all people.”
Perhaps they’ll stop watering down their product lines to satisfy the lowest common denominator? Perhaps they’ll realize that adding a touchscreen to the 9900’s QWERTY keyboard is quite ridiculous and compromises an otherwise good device? Perhaps they’ll get their App World in order because it repeatedly refuses to let me purchase anything and I have to ‘raise a ticket’ online to talk to anyone from RIM’s support organization?
RIM still has a lot going for it. Like almost all other manufacturers it’s suffered from the growth of the OS and the software ecosystem. Loyalties are now being courted not by hardware brands but by the likes of Apple iOS and Google Android.
As a one brand, one OS player, RIM will always have a ceiling to its potential market share. Comparisons between BlackBerry and Android devices (deployed by more than 30 hardware brands) are therefore a poor comparison of relative performance. Indeed it’s a comparison that makes me scream at many financial analysts whose ability to shift a company’s share price is often based on some very ill-conceived notions.
In fact, looking at last year’s shipments, RIM still outsold HTC, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. If we look at the total market for all handset shipments (not just smartphones), RIM’s market share (albeit modest at under 5%) has actually remained relatively stable over the last two years, declining by just 0.6% between Q1 2010 and Q4 2011. By comparison, of the large tier one hardware brands it’s only Apple and ZTE that have increased their respective shares (the remaining increase in share comes from smaller manufacturers. The likes of Samsung, LG, Nokia and Motorola have all decreased from their positions 24 months ago. See here for the source of this market share data.
Hein’s has his work cut out. Many of BlackBerry’s traditional strengths of enterprise security and efficiency don’t seem as highly valued anymore. However, a refocus on the brand’s core values will almost certainly help to raise Average Selling Prices, as will the growth of cross-platforms tools such as BlackBerry Fusion which enables enterprise management of BlackBerry, iOS and Android product.
There is life in RIM. I’m convinced of it.