BlackBerry looks to the future
These days, few people insist on carrying around a BlackBerry. In fact it’s almost as rare as seeing somebody with a flip phone. BlackBerry stalwarts say that it’s pretty tough being one of the few faithful, especially with the impressive ecosystems of the iPhone and Android, which makes it hard to hold out in the face of so many devices and amazing apps.
People used to envy BlackBerry devices; they were typically preferred choice for business people and anyone that appreciated a real keyboard. But almost overnight since the launch of the iPhone and a thousand copycats, BlackBerry lost its reputation and appeal, and so its customers deserted in droves.
BlackBerry may be down, but it’s not out yet. In the face of adversity, BlackBerry recently launched a new smartphone (the square, oversized Passport) and plans to launch a new Classic device soon. The company still remains a favourite with many enterprise users, where it has a deserved reputation for creating devices with excellent security features.
It’s worth considering for a moment why many people love their BlackBerry phones so much – these aren’t just stubborn people that don’t want to jump to iOS or Android – there are some very compelling reasons to like them…
The biggest draw must be the keyboard for which many so there is no equal. It feels great and clicks when it’s pressed. In most cases this is much easier than typing on a flat screen that doesn’t provide any touch feedback – have you ever tried walking while texting on an iPhone? It’s not easy.
Security is another key strength – many companies still prefer BlackBerries over iPhones and Android because it’s easier to control app downloads on and minimise risks to corporate networks and information.
Another incentive to use a BlackBerry is the call quality – it’s often said that voice quality is far superior to newer phones (witness the “Antennagate” incident with Apple a few years ago). But these days people are more likely to use messaging apps, games and email on their smartphones, so there’s little reason for companies like Apple or Samsung to improve call quality. Out of interest, I checked my iPhone’s call records and in the past year I’ve only made about an hour of voice calls – so I’m just as guilty being one of those people who prefer to text than phone.
Blackberry used to make amazing phones with physical keyboards – which were so good that they were often emulated by the likes of Nokia with its hugely popular (and brilliant) E71 and similar models. Unfortunately, I never owned a BlackBerry, but I was smitten with the E71 and its keyboard was a stunner too.
It has been exactly one year now since BlackBerry’s new CEO John Chen was appointed with the daunting task of turning the company around, following the failure of a $4.7 billion deal that would have taken it private.
Chen has worked hard to reshape the Canadian firm with an aggressive roadmap and several new devices on the way. His aim now is to drive up revenue, and while the last earnings statement surprised with a smaller than expected loss, the company’s revenue nevertheless dropped to around $900 million last quarter.
Since Chen took over, BlackBerry’s shares have risen almost 30%, spurred on by the sweeping changes that are underway. And it seems that the media is starting to talk about BlackBerry again in a more positive light.
Even as Lewis Hamilton stormed the Russian Grand Prix last month, BlackBerry had cause to celebrate as Mercedes’ win ensured the BlackBerry logo on the car was seen by huge global TV audiences, thousands of websites and news outlets.
The rise and fall of Blackberry
At the height of its popularity, BlackBerry had around 80 million users including high profile celebrities and politicians such as Barack Obama, who famously refused to stop using his BlackBerry when he became president. Even Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt initially stuck to his BlackBerry rather than Android-branded devices, simply because he liked the keyboard so much.
In recent times however, the number of BlackBerry users plummeted to 46 million, with 36 million of those being business users. Even in developing nations such as Indonesia, where the BlackBerry once enjoyed massive success, after a series of strategic missteps and fierce competition, has seen its market share there collapse too. In 2011, BlackBerry sold an impressive 43% of new smartphones in Indonesia – but now according to IDC the figure is closer to 3%.
In the UK, BlackBerry’s current status reflect its collapse in market share everywhere around the world at only 6% of total smartphones sold. Walk into any mobile phone store, and BlackBerry certainly isn’t pride of place like the current crop of Samsungs, iPhones and other smartphones.
Turning things around
BlackBerry’s latest device, the Passport, was launched in September and, with fairly positive reviews, the company can be commended for attempting something different. It’s square form factor is like nothing else available, and initial sales figures have shown promise with more than 200,000 pre-orders since launch.
In a blog post on the company’s website last Wednesday, CEO John Chen also commented about the forthcoming Classic device, which takes design cues from the company’s more popular models like the Bold.
“It’s tempting in a rapidly changing, rapidly growing mobile market to change for the sake of change – to mimic what’s trendy and match the industry-standard, kitchen-sink approach of trying to be all things to all people” – John Chen.
Chen also said “there’s also something to be said for the classic adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
The new Classic will have a physical QWERTY keyboard and a 3.5-inch touchscreen, as well as navigation keys and a menu button – thankfully it will include the hallmark mini-touchpad and will integrate with the new Hub messaging software and BlackBerry Enterprise Server. These new smartphones will no doubt win support from BlackBerry’s celebrity fans like Kim Kardashian, who stated at a recent Re/Code conference that she has three old BlackBerries purchased from Ebay that she continues to use.
In terms of the outlook for BlackBerry, Chen has publicly stated the aim is to become profitable again next year, doubling software revenue to $500 million, and $100 million income from its BlackBerry Messenger service. But the rumours about a potential takeover continue unabated – Chinese firm Lenovo was said to have offered to buy the company for $15 per share, and a buyout might actually offer the brightest future for BlackBerry.
In the past year there have been some major improvements at BlackBerry, and a renewed focus on its core customers. With new devices like the Passport and the imminent Classic, BlackBerry is taking a few risks while also recognising the things that people loved about their BlackBerries in the first place.
It would be a real shame if BlackBerry disappeared or was taken over and rebranded the way Nokia was, but if anyone can turn things around, John Chen might be the man to do it.
Do you own a BlackBerry? Do you long for the BlackBerry days just like Ewan? Let us known in the comments below whether BlackBerry can make a real comeback, what you think of its new devices, or whether a buyout might be the best option.