Can BlackBerry really find stability, lock up enterprise? [CES2014]

John Chen

On the fringes of the world’s largest technology showcase, CES in Las Vegas, BlackBerry’s new CEO laid out his plan for the ailing former giant of mobile communications. Addressing journalists from a number of emerging market countries, which are key for Blackberry, as they are the only ones showing any growth, John Chen appeared comfortable and confident.

“I like the keyboard”, Chen stated before revealing that we will likely see some high-end devices from the Waterloo-based company soon. That one sentence clearly highlights the disconnect at BlackBerry. Keyboards are good, keyboards are fast, and keyboards are almost obsolete as an input medium, especially on mobile devices.

The world has moved on John, we are talking the Internet of Things, perceptual computing, and all new ways of interacting with technology. Intel highlighted this at its keynote by not talking about speeds and processor cycles. It was all about user experience and tactile interaction with technology, in 3D. Intel’s Mooly Eden talked up new ways of interacting with technology and sees technology being implanted in our bodies fairly soon.

Wearable tech, along with new interfaces, abounded at the CES. With dozens of virtual reality headsets, and glasses, that make Google glass technology look somewhat old school. All this may sound like science fiction, but from what I saw on the floor, in terms of prototypes, and even product that will ship in the next few months, the merger of people and technology is picking up pace exponentially.

BlackBerry missed this a few years ago with touch devices, and once it tried to catch up it realised that the boat had sailed. Everybody had eaten their lunch. Clearly BlackBerry does understand the enterprise and its deep security expertise and skills are a valuable resource. BlackBerry was first in and it shows. BBM is the most secure messaging platform and BES, especially the latest versions are just what every security-conscious CIO is currently looking for.

It became abundantly clear amongst all the stands and exhibitions that there is no clear divide between consumer and enterprise. Companies and governments do have different needs to you and me, but as technology and the internet have evolved, these needs have converged. They will continue to do so to the point that they merge into a seamless secure way we simply just do business, and run our lives.

Chen is understated and earnest, and he claims to have a plan, he did assure us that his plan for the next 18 months would bring Blackberry back to profitability and stabilize the ship. Part of this stability is clever financial structuring, which includes offloading stock responsibility and manufacturing risk to Foxconn, which will assist in the development and manufacture of devices for the lower end of the market.

Chen also claims that markets such as South Africa and Indonesia were key and BlackBerry would work hard to maintain its presence in them. Part of that would entail finding partners who could assist in this task. He did not elaborate as to what form these partnerships would take.

Once again, it seems that BlackBerry under Chen is out of touch. Chen maintains that a Foxconn built Blackberry 10 based touchscreen device for around US$200 will be a good device to enable some growth and stability in the key emerging markets. While Blackberry is shooting at US$200, other manufacturers, running Android and even Windows Phone, are now shipping very competitive devices at around US$100 and even below. Expect to see these devices at around US$75 by mid 2014.

There is no doubt that there are massive compromises at those prices but overall the devices have access to much of the Google and Windows ecosystem which includes maps, mail, and millions of apps. All areas that Blackberry’s superior BB10 OS just cannot compete with, even at double the price.

BlackBerry, under the newly appointed Chen, has confirmed that it will aggressively chase government and enterprise, to stabilise the business as it believes it has a unique offering. The market will not however leave Blackberry alone in the quest for the enterprise market. Samsung is playing hard ball with its Knox product, despite some initial flaws and challenges, it will be hard for BlackBerry to compete with the sheer amount of resources and marketing that Samsung can throw at the problem.

Microsoft also has exceedingly deep enterprise experience, and pockets, and with the imminent finalization of the acquisition of Nokia, will have no problem in offering a seamless and secure solution to all the same customers who have been traditional BlackBerry supporters.

The final nail in the coffin of BlackBerry’s aspirations will simply be scale. It currently has around 60-million subscribers globally. Even if it stabilizes at this number, will not be a big enough prize for app developers and others to throw significant resources at. The glittering markets of billions of Android, iOS, and Windows Phone users will simply offer scalability and potential market size to ensure that BlackBerry continues to be marginalised.

The truly sad fact is that unless there is a sea change of strategic thinking, there does not seem to be any future for Blackberry as a mobile ecosystem. An outstanding and rock solid OS, in BB10, along with good hardware, is just not enough. BBM does not offer enough of a differentiator from all the other messaging platforms to save Blackberry in any meaningful way.

Innovation and a grasp of the scale, and the connectedness of the global mobile market, is key to any success today. It does not appear that Blackberry and its new CEO can change that any time soon.



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