It’s the brand that defined a generation of executives and started much of the smartphone revolution. Even President Obama, photographed on Air Force One mid-email, made much of his ‘addiction’ to BlackBerry.
Yet like the President himself, just a few years after it was riding high BlackBerry’s stock had plummeted. Yesterday in six major cities around the world, BlackBerry rolled the dice for one last time, and sought to persuade its already diminishing band of users that it was still at the cutting edge.
And indeed from FTSE 100 companies to police forces, millions of Britons still use BlackBerry. It remains the UK’s third most popular smartphone platform, shored up at first by young people being given their parents’ phones and latterly by cheap devices that were affordable for millions.
But a rash of bad publicity accelerated a nosedive, and not everyone thinks the company has done enough this week to pull out of it. From a murder at a BlackBerry-sponsored concert to the use of the company’s BBM messenger software by those involved in the London riots, it seemed that for a while BlackBerry’s luck was even worse than Nokia’s. Aware that it was falling behind, the company had bought a whole new operating system but was repeatedly forced to announce delays. Its co-founders left the front line of the business.
The pressure on the company formerly known as Research in Motion to reinvent itself, therefore, has been enormous. As part of the announcements yesterday, the company even confirmed that it would officially change its name to BlackBerry. And while America and the UAE remain huge markets, it is Britain that will see the first launch of BlackBerry’s new Z10 and Q10 handsets.
The Z10 is a touchscreen device, while the Q10 retains the famous keyboard that has built much of BlackBerry’s growth. At the heart of both of the devices is a new operating system, called BlackBerry 10, that combines a work persona with a personal mobile in a single device. The idea is that while a single interface allows you to see, say, your work and your home calendar, in fact the two separate things are completely segregated. If you select work, the photos you take with the BB10 camera are stored in a different place to those you take with it in personal mode. As one BlackBerry executive put it, “If you get fired, you don’t want the boss to delete all the photos you took of your kids”.
And BB10 also combines all your emails, social networks, messages and other communications into a single inbox. The idea is that ‘BlackBerry people are those who want to simply get stuff done’, the company says.
In the eyes of analysts, BB10 “will appeal to the faithful”. As Ben Wood from CCS Insight says, however, that may not be enough: “challenges remain”. Wood says BlackBerry must “swiftly sharpen” what it offers.
For now, however, it’s beyond doubt that mobile networks and retailers are excited by what BlackBerry offers: it provides a third challenger to Google’s Android, increasingly dominated by Samsung, and to Apple. While Microsoft has tried to take that third place slot, there’s a real need for a brand to break the duopoly. BlackBerry will, the company claims, be given top billing by retailers.
As Jan Dawson of analysts Ovum puts it, BB10 is a help for RIM, but it will not provide salvation. Like many, he argues that RIM has left it too late, no matter how good its software is. With so much of the mobile business about momentum, BlackBerry is grinding to a halt rather than picking up speed.
“Two major factors have worked against RIM in the past two years: companies are no longer buying the majority of smartphones sold today, and individuals overwhelmingly choose devices other than BlackBerries when they make buying decisions. Both of these have depressed sales for RIM’s devices, and neither is going away,” he says.
So when RIM welcomed the chief executive of Angry Birds-maker Rovio onto the launch stage there was a certain sense that no matter how many films, music tracks or games the company offers, it is never going to overtake Google or Apple in that specific market segment, and it’s never going to recapture its glory days among the business community, or for that matter American presidents.
This isn’t helped by the fact that for a decade BlackBerry was the phone given to users by their IT department if they were lucky. But increasingly users in fact buy their own devices and then make them work for business, whether IT departments want it or not. And that is where BlackBerry loyalty remains: with companies around the world locked in to BlackBerry Enterprise Service, the company will continue to thrive in some scenarios.
It looks a long way from being a brand that individual buyers will seek out, however. Even, according to Wood, those users who demand a physical keyboard are not sufficient to save BlackBerry.
Dawson agrees. “Our recent surveys suggest that even when employees aren’t choosing the device, they expect the replacement for their current BlackBerry to be an iPhone or an Android device."
From RIM’s perspective, it’s clear that the company must first stabilise its existing customer base. “As part of our research for a newly published profile on RIM’s smart device strategy, it became clear to us that RIM’s intention for BlackBerry 10 is to be “the best BlackBerry for BlackBerry users” rather than something that will necessarily win converts from other platforms,” says Dawson. “The points of differentiation RIM has focused on in teasers for the new platform confirm this – better multitasking, productivity, email, contacts and calendar applications and so on, rather than a better gaming, content consumption or social networking experience.”
That’s logical if only because around half of all BlackBerry users are those upgrading from earlier models. Many of those have held off upgrading until today. But as Dawson says, those numbers are slipping nonetheless. “Longer term, RIM will return to its recent patterns of decline,” she says.
“At its peak, RIM shipped between 12 and 15 million devices per quarter, but there is no way it can hit this number on a sustainable basis once the BB10 launch filters through.
"Though the new platform should have significant appeal to existing users, we don’t expect it to win significant numbers of converts from other platforms. There is little in the new platform that suggests it will have the compelling apps, content stores, or the broader ecosystem that consumers have come to expect in a competitive smartphone platform.”
While those words might strike some devotees as sad, Dawson has potentially even worse news. Despite the enthusiasm of British users, he predicts that even “the current popularity of BlackBerry in emerging markets is likely to be short-lived, especially as Android based alternatives begin to flood the market at even lower prices".
"In all, RIM continues to face the twin demons of consumer-driven buying power and a chronic inability to appeal to mature market consumers. There is nothing in what we’ve seen so far of BB10 that suggests it will conquer the second of these demons. Its glory days are past, and it is only a matter of time before it reaches a natural end.”
Matt Warman, Telegraph.co.uk