Over the past few hours or so BlackBerry has been trying its best to tell the world it is “not getting out of the devices business” and is “simply adjusting the model for how BlackBerry devices are brought to market.” But a short statement, hidden somewhere in Executive Chairman and CEO John Chen’s report for Q2 Fiscal 2017, has most of the smartphone using world all teary eyed.
“The company plans to end all internal hardware development and will outsource that function to partners. This allows us to reduce capital requirements and enhance return on invested capital,” said Chen, clearly announcing the end of an era. But there were no surprises here. Everyone knew this was bound to happen, and some are even wondering why Waterloo wants to persist with devices in any way.
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BlackBerry’s tale is a strange one, of a company losing its position of advantage and ending up in the doldrums. However, it is not an unfamiliar tale in the smartphone world where a titan like Nokia reduced itself to a just a name that people look back at with a sense of nostalgia.
We might never know what really went wrong for BlackBerry, but there are surely some lessons smartphone companies can learn from its fall.
Never make great phones: Nokia and BlackBerry were both guilty of selling very good hardware. This meant refresh cycles were long and it took years for loyal customers to comeback for a new device. Yes, making good devices is no longer good business. Apple tries to woo you with a better phone every two years or so, making it a compelling upgrade. Others simply make phones that won’t offer the same user experience after a year or so, forcing an upgrade. Either way, the idea is not to let customers get too comfortable with a device.
Listen to customers: As soon as the smartphone segment started to explode thanks to iOS and Android devices, BlackBerry customers were asking for access to these apps. However, the company initially turned a Nelson’s eye to this and then tried to pacify them with its own app store. But it did not take long for the customers to be hit by the fear of missing out (FOMO) phenomenon and look at other options that gave them access to the whole wide world of apps.
Security is great, but not that great: BlackBerry seems to have overplayed its secure device card. Yes, it is a great thing, but for that you have to be a company CEO or an Angela Merkel. For your average young business executive, the convenience of apps was much more important. Even now every BlackBerry conversation starts with secured devices and ecosystems, but the company seems to have made itself believe for many years this was its only USP. On the other hand, a lot of people bought these devices for the convenience it offered in terms of the keyboard and messaging features.
Move ahead of the curve, before the curve starts: It is easy to say, tough to execute. But smartphone companies now need to think way ahead of whatever forward thinking is. You need to be able to spot disruptors, or trends, way before they become disruptors or trends. BlackBerry missed a few of these: app ecosystem, third-party messaging apps and touchscreens to name a few.
If you are late, maybe just skip it: A lot of the smartphones BlackBerry brought in towards the end were reactionary and woefully late. It might have been better to think ahead on a device that the world would need a year on, rather than create something the world needed a year ago. Some of these devices were good, like the Q10, but lacked the edge needed for success.
We will still get BlackBerry devices, maybe made by a partner. But they will never have the charm of a Curve or a Bold. That charm will become a part of smartphone nostalgia for most of us. After all, who hasn’t used a BlackBerry?