Early start for 5live’s Wake Up to Money programme this morning, chatting about the launch of BlackBerry 10, amongst other things.
BlackBerry 10 is about more than a new handset: it is about the software and services that underpin it. And if the handset alone was the story, RIM, the BlackBerry’s maker, would certainly be doomed. As it is, the company is only probably doomed.
The BlackBerry was a defining device of its brief age. An age where smartphones were still new and email was a killer app. Smartphones are now cheap and ubiquitous. Email is dull and worthy at best, diminished in value by a thousand alternative means of sending messages.
Having established itself as king of the hill with unmatched email services and military-grade reliability, RIM then went on to attract a new generation of customers as BlackBerries first became popular with celebrities and then dropped in price. The BlackBerry and its BBM alternative messaging service became the platform of choice for a younger generation.
With these falls in price though came a drop in quality and a complete stagnation in innovation. Open letters to the management from a number of anonymous senior staff highlighted poor morale and management structures, lack of direction and a failure to admit that the market was changing around them.
A few years later, under new leadership and having bought in the ingredients of a new product from QNX and TAT, RIM is setting out to reclaim its throne.
Except that it won’t.
The benchmark that RIM has achieved with BlackBerry 10 is today’s standard. Not tomorrow’s. The company has a tenth as many apps available as its rivals. It has a product that is only affordable by the people and companies who have largely already abandoned it; the kids will have to wait for their device. The improvement that it offers over today’s iPhone or Android device is marginal at best.
RIM could do three things now:
- It could nail the marketing of BlackBerry 10 and gain enough market share to remain sustainable in its current form as a vertically integrated (hardware, software, services) vendor.
- It could split the company in two or possibly even three, licensing the new and widely-liked software to other hardware companies, selling off the declining hardware unit, and spinning off the device management platform.
- It could fail completely and get broken up for patents
My expectation is actually a combination of all three: the new software and devices will see a brief rally in the company’s fortunes. They’ll ship a few million of the new devices but not enough to give them any distance from the other hard-fighting also-rans, Nokia and HTC for hardware, Microsoft for software. As it becomes clear there’s more value in the business as separate components than together, it will break up with many of the patents being sold off in the process. The part made up largely of the acquired QNX and TAT technology will go on to licence its software but will never see volumes of the order of Android and even Microsoft.
A sad end for a once powerful company, but the same fate that faces all those who stop innovating.