BitDepth#914 - December 03

Blackberry has had some ups and downs. Now there's a new new man at the helm, can there be a new future?
What’s next for Blackberry?
The new man in the hotseat, John Chen, restored Sybase and sold it to SAP. Can he fix Blackberry? Photo courtesy Blackberry.

Blackberry was up for sale. Then it wasn’t. Then the company’s CEO was “laid off” and Fairfax Holdings, which declined to buy the company, instead invested in 25 percent of the Can$1 billion debt convertible that the company has issued against its shares, and installed John Chen as the new and temporary CEO.

This is, quite simply, no longer a company that’s fighting for market share, Blackberry is fighting to survive as a brand and commercial entity in a business that it essentially invented and commercialised.

It’s is an astonishing turn of events for the company that trounced more sophisticated Palm Treo devices, the sophisticated and design focused devices of the turn of the century, with solid, if stolid features and technical support.

While Palm based phones had a rich ecosystem of software, Blackberry appealed to a new customer, people in business interested in reliable communications and speedy touch typing, sometimes under the desk during boring meetings.

It was, after a fashion, the Apple-Microsoft rivalry being played out in miniature, but it was also a battle for something that was yet to be fully defined in the mobile space, effective communications using marginal Internet bandwidth and secure information processing.

Long after the iPhone became a hit and Android became a more compelling proposition for phone makers looking for a viable OS they could license, Blackberry, still known as RIM, soldiered on, bolstered by the muscle memory of customers used to the feel of a physical, if tiny keyboard.

The company’s Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES), offered admirably secure communications system continued to hold strong appeal for companies anxious to keep their corporate secrets.
Almost as an accident, BES opened another competitive door for the company, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), which quickly became an appealing chat system for personal communications among younger users.

All the reasons the company faltered over the years are well documented and quite clear in retrospect, but they boil down to the impact of pervasive mobile broadband, heated competition in the mobile space and a flood of developers eager to build on the bedrock that Blackberry laid as expectations in the mobile space.

Blackberry has now squandered precious years hoping to be a contender in the mobile space. It has failed unequivocally at that. Now it must acknowledge the competition that is keen to clone the software jewels in its crown.

Whatsapp has been champing at the bit to replace BBM as the chat system of choice for young texters, and it has serious company among the big players, including Facebook, Google and Twitter who offer tools to create private chats across a range of devices.

Good Technology, an old and almost forgotten challenger to BES, is gearing up to create solutions that allow companies to migrate from Blackberry phones to a corporate messaging server that works across a range of devices. Other companies, like Citrix, are also gearing up to win more customers in the space.

Blackberry has been getting the competitive message, but it seems like it’s either hearing it unclearly or there aren’t enough people left at the company to build what’s needed.
Efforts to create a multi-platform version of BBM have been a humiliating failure, and the company is running out of time to get the implementation right.

It’s clearly time for Blackberry to fall back and regroup, mining its essential assets to build new products that acknowledge the way the world works in 2013.
John Chen has valuable blocks to build with, but an ever narrowing opportunity to construct something useful with them.

Blackberry's recent statement to its customers is here.
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