Is 2014 the year BlackBerry makes its big comeback?


To many, BlackBerry is well and truly dead. While the company still exists in the same form it has in its heyday, it’s a mere shell of its former self. The media consensus is that the Canadian smartphone maker is on life support and with BlackBerry having gone up on the block for a hot minute, it appears as though its C-level is wistfully tugging on the cord.

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It’s all true. The company is in bad shape, but that’s hardly news to you, is it? BlackBerry’s demise has been relentlessly prophesied for years now, and yet miraculously, it’s not heading into 2014 in the back of a hearse. Just. It’s stock price is currently flailing around US$7 — do you remember when it was at $140? — its plummeting market share is already at record lows, the latest earnings reports indicate gargantuan losses, and perhaps most important of all, the BlackBerry brand has lost its shimmer — even in emerging markets lately.

Is 2014 the year that BlackBerry is finally laid to rest? It’s not a bad bet. The problem with wagering on its imminent demise however, is that the stubborn thing is still around, and that its new CEO, John Chen, appears to have every intention of proving naysayers wrong.

At the start, it looks like Chen’s strategy will be to take his company back to its “heritage and roots”. For BlackBerry that means re-focusing on the enterprise environment and asserting its dominance in a segment that it almost single-handedly carved out.

It’s not a bad idea. While iOS adoption is growing fast, it needs time to mature and Android still has security shortcomings to address.

Chen’s war cry underlines the fact that BlackBerry is the only enterprise mobility management (EMM) vendor to receive the US Department of Defense “Authority to Operate” certification for its BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 (BES10) and BlackBerry 10 devices.

Despite competition from enterprise startups, in BES10, BlackBerry also has one of the most comprehensive, big brand-backed, multi-platform mobile device management (MDM) solutions to tame the stresses — especially in terms of security — that comes with the emerging bring-your-own-device (BYOD) corporate trend. In addition, BlackBerry 10 devices are nothing like their anachronistic brethren of before — BlackBerry 10 is future ready, that is, if it can survive to have a future.

Even as Chen touts BlackBerry’s growing EMM customer base, the enterprise veteran has work to do to reassure enterprise customers who have been rattled by the Canadian smartphone maker’s troubled consumer market attempt.

Once upon a time, BlackBerry existed largely distinct from the consumer handset market. Can it now successfully retreat from the consumer spotlight, or has the consumer space become an indispensable leg on which BlackBerry must now forever stand on? Going by Chen’s love letter to the corporate world, BlackBerry is gunning hard for the former scenario, but should it?

If we believe the press and rely on our own anecdotal experiences, it seems safe to assume that consumers have traded in their BlackBerrys for iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices enmasse and won’t really miss BlackBerry options when their contracts expire. But, what about those who will miss a consumer-focused BlackBerry, and why does the company so obviously concede defeat in the consumer market?

Is there a way BlackBerry can balance its renewed enterprise focus while still plugging the consumer hole?

The company still has a sizeable, though declining subscriber base of roughly 72 million — September 2013 — which includes both enterprise clients and many, many consumers.

If deep-down BlackBerry still cares to stop the attrition of mainstream consumers from its camp — and it should, especially those that invested in a Q10, Z10 or Z30 — how should Chen approach 2014?

BlackBerry’s great galvanising hope, BlackBerry 10, didn’t do well among consumers. At all. In fact, the company’s second quarter fiscal 2014 report indicated a US$950-million loss, largely as a result of BlackBerry 10’s weak reception. While the reasons for its shunning is probably more complex — the BlackBerry brand has suffered dramatically in the wake of Apple and Google’s assault — one of the clearest signals among the noise has been BlackBerry’s lack of third-party applications.

No matter how BlackBerry tries to cut it, it’s app selection compared to its rivals were weak at launch and it is weak now.

It’s still missing official versions of Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Netflix, Gmail, Pinterest, SoundCloud, PayPal, Fandango, Tumblr, YouTube, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and Google Maps. True, tech-savvy BlackBerry fans and die-hards know how to side-load Android versions and some of the aforementioned services have excellent HTML5 browser-based counterparts, but when a consumer is comparing options, BlackBerry 10 just doesn’t stack up well.

BlackBerry owes it to its current and future subscriber base, both consumer and prosumer (what’s a corporate employee other than a consumer at work), to change this, but is there enough time? BlackBerry will need to convince app developers that their resources invested are justified. Failing that, what then?

To be frank, it seems highly unlikely that BlackBerry 10 versions of big name apps will ever find their way to BlackBerry World, but BlackBerry 10 is a pretty powerful operating system. Its latest version runs an Android Jellybean 4.2.2 runtime, which means that BlackBerry 10 devices potentially have access to Google Play’s over one million apps.

So, why can’t BlackBerry 10 users have access to those apps right now? The BlackBerry ecosystem requires Android apps to be converted to a package file that contains all of the resources that the application requires to run on a BlackBerry 10 device. This additional step has stunted the influx of Android apps, not because developers are lazy, but because Android apps are not optimised for BlackBerry 10. If BlackBerry 10 owners had direct access to Google Play however, the user experience responsibility would fall to the user, not the developer.

Why would a user settle for a sub-optimal user experience however, why not just buy an Android phone? Good question. Android applications seem to run very well on the new runtime. You could therefore make the argument that BlackBerry 10 is a cocktail of unmatched security and the app selection of Android.

Still, BlackBerry 10 users would be installing apps that have largely not been optimised to take advantage of their device’s native features — gestures, and BlackBerry Hub for example.

Let’s venture a step further. What if Android apps were native on BlackBerry 10? In other words, what if BlackBerry adopted Android as its native operating system? It’s a possibility BlackBerry has no doubt weighed before, but since Android has still a way to go in terms of security features, it’s a more complex solution.

Realistically, direct Google Play access, despite its benefits, seem like an interim plug anyway, and one which BlackBerry has quickly shot down. A more coherent story in the short term, despite the shivers it might send down the spines of BlackBerry die-hards, is the one in which BlackBerry adopts Android and injects its seasoned security knowledge into the platform.

Taking a longer view, if BlackBerry can somehow capitalise on the lessons it learned in the consumer market, if it can somehow bring the colour back into the boardrooms with flourishes that include the innovative BlackBerry Balance, security conscious MDM software BES10 and its sleek and fast BlackBerry 10 devices that in some instances transcend Apple and Google’s best, perhaps the earth will stand still long enough for the embattled smartphone maker to find its feet again. Long enough for it to dream about what it will do differently if gets a second stab at the consumer market. Long enough to become alluring to developers once more.

Encouragingly for those who would love to see BlackBerry retain consumer flair, Chen says that BlackBerry will not exit the handset business. It remains unclear however, whether BlackBerry will continue to build its own hardware or start approaching OEMs in BlackBerry 10 licensing deals and if we’ll ever see anything other than “prosumer” device from BlackBerry again.

Rise or fall, 2014 will not be the year in which people stop talking about BlackBerry for good.

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