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Blackberry’s Impossible Mission

Today, Research in Motion Blackberry announced with great fanfare their new Blackberry 10 operating system and devices.  Unfortunately, the market has shifted so radically in the past few years, it’s not clear to me what path exists for any meaningful success for Blackberry.

Blackberry is on an impossible mission.

Why Blackberry?

I used a Blackberry for over seven years.  In fact, I didn’t move to the iPhone until the 3G came out with the native application platform.  Like many, I was addicted to the perceived and actual productivity of messaging on the Blackberry and the physical keyboard.

Like most people who make the switch, it took me a few weeks to get to be “good enough” to type and message effectively on the iPhone.  The millions who are still on the Blackberry tend to focus on exactly one issue: the Blackberry is an amazing messaging device, thanks to the keyboard & software optimization.

The Victory of the Touch Screen

I remember, in 2009, making a Blackberry my temporary “full time” mobile device for a few days.  It was amazing – in just a year, I had completely lost all the muscle memory that made me so productive on the Blackberry.  The iPhone had won.

The reason is simple: a fast, modern device that offers the full richness of the modern web, combined with a vibrant and high quality native application market dominates the marginal efficiency in messaging.  Whether you use iOS or Android, minor productivity improvements in SMS & Email are swamped by access to applications, games, web services, cloud platforms and a myriad of other capabilities.  The smartphone itself has now evolved into a variety of form factors and niches, with phablets and tablets eating an increasing share of our attention and computing.

Blackberry’s Impossible Mission

Right now, it seems like Blackberry has no viable path as a third platform.

Yes, the ardent users of the platform can buy the new devices for their hardware keyboards.  But there aren’t enough of them (h/t to Daring Fireball), and it’s hard to imagine that this market won’t get eaten by the flexibility provided by the Android platform in time.

Yes, there are IT departments that continue to have their companies locked down on the Blackberry, but it’s unlikely the the new operating system won’t create sufficient migration issues that they won’t move to either iOS, Android or both as supported platforms.

The real problem is that their touchscreen product cannot possibly provide enough unique functionality to justify the choice over the iPhone or Android at the medium to high end.  At the low end, they cannot possibly underprice the Android ecosystem.

Damned if they do, Damned if they don’t

In other words, if they abandon their customer-defined differentiator (keyboard), they’ll lose all differentiation in the market.  If they don’t, they are left with an eroding, minority share of a market that is likely insufficient in size and economics to fund their continued development and support of a competitive mobile ecosystem.  As a developer, spending precious resources on this, at best, stagnant minority pool of potential users is tough to justify.

Microsoft can play this game, for a while, because they (still) have relatively unlimited free cash flow and a desktop platform that still boasts hundreds of millions of users.  Blackberry doesn’t.

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