On November 16, 2012, my BlackBerry Curve finally died. It suffered from old age, including a faulty trackball, sluggish overall performance and a constant state of paralysis resulting from poorly performing apps on an aged OS. And it leaves behind its former owner — me — who managed to keep it for an astonishing four years, or 24 equivalent mobile years — nearly a generation in the modern handset era.
The Curve in question had a rich, full life until its demise. It traveled from San Francisco to New York and back, with side trips to Iceland, Thailand and a host of other exotic locales. Its well-designed, though increasingly quaint, QWERTY keyboard helped write many blog posts, articles, short stories and even screenplays on subway rides and in airport waiting areas.
It was highly prized for its personal value: it held many photos of family and friends, as well as every single text message with my boyfriend since the beginning of our relationship. Through a combination of sentimentality, laziness and sheer perversity — I wanted to hold on long enough until it actually became retro — I was reluctant to replace the handset, especially since I was contract-free and hated the idea of signing another one for a cheaper phone. And the thing was durable — I could drop it all over the place and it kept working, and the battery lasted forever.
But in the end, it expired because it was among the last of its kind, a near-ancient breed that seemed old-fashioned and slow next to modern brethren like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy series. I could have saved it, or at least preserved my relationship to RIM in general, by buying another Curve or Bold. But I didn’t because it was clear the newer BlackBerry devices suffered from many of the same ailments as their predecessors and the hardware was supposedly crappier.
In the end, I just needed a better phone, suited for contemporary life. So I let it die, and now it sits in a pile of electronics earmarked for the e-waste recycling bins at Best Buy.
A Change in the Mobile Lifestyle
In a way, my story as a BlackBerry owner dovetails with the rise and fall of RIM. In 2008, I bought the Curve at height of the company’s dominance, when IDC reported it commanded a little more than half of U.S. market share, adroitly competing with then-upstart Apple. I wasn’t part of its core constituency — business and government types who need security and reliable servers — but I was one of the consumers that BlackBerry trickled down to.
BlackBerry served my needs at the time because big swaths of my life — work, socializing, etc. — happened through text or e-mail. People were still forwarding stories they wanted to share via e-mail, and my friends made plans over e-mail, ironing out same-day logistics over text. A BlackBerry suited life just fine.
Of course, everything changes, but nothing changes faster than the mobile market. Now, everyone’s on iPhone and Android — with their near-magical touch screens and plentiful apps. They form a different kind of hub at the center of modern life — one that fully exploits mobile capabilities like geolocation, GPS and smartphone cameras, all with a swipe of a finger.
People don’t share stories and information on e-mail anymore — they post them to Facebook or Twitter and document their lives and keep in touch with Instagram. They video-conference with FaceTime. The antiquated text-centric BlackBerry couldn’t accommodate these trends, so consumers flocked to devices that could. At the end of 2012, Android commanded a whopping 75 percent of market share in the U.S., with iOS at 15 percent, according to IDC.
On a larger level, the nature of electronic communication changed — but RIM failed to recognize this shift. Tablets came into the picture — and the company failed to deliver with the PlayBook. Similarly, Internet and app use exploded — and everyone knows how shoddy RIM’s BlackBerry browser and the app ecosystem were, especially compared to iOS and Android. Everyone I knew defected from BlackBerry, and soon I was the only one left on BBM, with no one left to send a dorky emoticon. BlackBerry held a scant four percent market share at the end of 2012, IDC reported.
The only people I know on BlackBerry now are… well, nobody, anymore. And then, I, too, was gone.
Missteps, Mistakes and Mishaps
Of course, companies fail for a variety of reasons: inability to keep up with their market’s tempo, poor management, or misguided focus, to name a few. To survive a sharp downturn, they must buck up, tap into the scrappy spirit that made them a powerhouse to begin with and claw their way back to relevancy. But in RIM’s case, it didn’t.
Instead, the company’s leadership seemed to stick its head in the sand. At first, it cast the inability to shift as a steadfast adherence to its core strengths and values; it prized security, e-mail communication, a certain kind of form factor. It pioneered wireless e-mail on a secure device, knew its core audience, and felt confident that enterprise, business and government sectors remained firmly in the BlackBerry camp, with its reputation for strong security and data encryption.
But then the company began to show signs it genuinely was clueless about what was going on. RIM founders and CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie scoffed at the iPhone’s skyrocketing success and downplayed the popularity of touch screens. Engineers first, Lazaridis and Balsillie had spent their careers building a perfect mobile e-mail device, and felt confident in messaging as the central node in their customers’ lives and businesses.
RIM wasn’t entirely behind the times. It eventually jumped into tablets, but it fared poorly with the PlayBook. The signs were on the wall as early as fall 2009, when its shares began to slide. Then RIM executives started leaving, a trickle at first, then in droves, and the company issued workforce layoffs.
Despite the decline, the co-CEOs continued to delay the revamped BlackBerry platform, even as the market zoomed past them and their share dwindled, dropping to 14 percent in 2011. And to add insult to injury, BlackBerry servers suffered a three-day outage in October 2011, putting a dent into its vaunted reputation for security and reliability. By the end of the year, RIM’s stock lost nearly 75 percent of its value, feeding investor grumbles for a change in leadership.
In 2012, Balsillie and Lazaridis finally stepped aside to made way for a new chief, Thorstein Heins, an executive who worked his way up the ranks. Heins took an incremental, conservative view of changes and those eager for a radical reinvention were especially frustrated after further delays pushed the BlackBerry software back to 2013.
Where were consumers during all of this? Merrily swiping on iPhones and Galaxy smartphones, while playing “Angry Birds” or “Temple Run,” or taking photos and commenting on Instagram — definitely not tapping away on BlackBerry devices. As handsets became lifestyle devices, RIM failed to think of itself as a lifestyle company, and it paid the price.
If You Build It, Will They Come Back?
At the end of January, RIM will finally unveil its long-delayed operating system, BlackBerry 10, or BB10 for short, optimized for modern touch screen devices. The company promised that its lineup was faster and smoother than current models and has access to a large group of apps, a key to the success of any mobile platform.
The signs are promising: RIM’s stock inched up as BB10 approached, with reports that the software runs equals to, or even outperforms, rivals.
“Recent tests and demos have shown a solid browser, smooth touch interface and intuitive navigation,” Peter Misek, an analyst at Jefferies & Co., said. “We now believe the operating system performance could be better than or equal to Android Jelly Bean and likely on par with iOS 6.”
BB10 reportedly combines aspects of iOS and Android, but comes with features unique to RIM. Its Web browser is much improved, and boasts a “reader” feature that lifts texts and images from a webpage, stripping it of ads, pop-ups and other distractions. It offers, among other features, the ability to keep more than one app open at once, and a “Hub” feature that allows users to “peek” at all messages, notifications, e-mails and other communications without closing any other apps.
A “cascade” navigation system lets you move apps aside to show other apps open underneath, resembling a stack of papers. There’s also a much touted ability to run it in both work and play modes, making it usable both at the office and at home. So far, BB10 has garnered praise for its features and usability, but some say it’s overly complex for casual users.
BB10 is also picking up unexpected amounts of support, with Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile signing on to back BB10 for at least two quarters after the first release.
Developer support for BB10 is stronger than expected, too. Earlier this month, RIM held a “portathon,” where it invited developers on other platforms to bring apps over into BB10. As an incentive, it offered $100 per approved app, as well as free hardware. The gambit worked, resulting in a swell of 15,000 app submissions. Though it can’t compete with Apple and Google, BlackBerry promises a healthy cushion of apps.
RIM has other sizable strengths to draw on too. Even if its U.S. market share is low, it still has a large user base worldwide: 75 million users in 2012, with strengths in Asia and other emerging markets. While Android and iOS made incursions into business and enterprise markets, those sectors still heavily favor RIM.
But is RIM too far behind to really turn it around? Heins knows they can’t overtake Apple and Android so quickly. “We are realistic about our competitors and the great devices in our industry,” he said in a conference call with analysts in December, according to the New York Times. “But we know that customers in this industry demand and respond to innovation, and we believe BlackBerry 10 truly delivers on this request.”
The Prodigal BlackBerry Consumer: Do They Exist?
After my Curve died, I got an iPhone, like nearly everyone else I know. I resisted the siren call as long as I could, but in the end I sucked it up and signed a two-year contract. Apple’s strategy of touting the iOS experience worked on me: I already had an iPod touch as well as an iPad, so it was no stretch for me to get another iOS device and leap right in.
Like many others, my experience centers on app use — Instagram, Twitter and Facebook keep me connected, and these days I prefer to read the Web through an app or stripped down mobile browser instead of through a website — too many ads, pop-ups and annoyances. Texts are mostly for “inner circle” friends and family, and e-mail is just a headache I associate with work and spam. I’m not an Apple fangirl, but the Cupertino company built a product and software that both shapes and fits into my life easily, and it’s a testament to their philosophy of creating a user-friendly package with powerful capabilities.
In part, RIM became a victim of its own success. It amassed a huge part of the U.S. market — no mean feat for any company — but then faced the onerous task of migrating from an aging operating system to a more modern platform. It risked alienating customers, forced to replace their devices or feel cheated if they stuck to older, slower ones. It leaned on its core audience while failing to develop and grow new ones, and over-inflated its own strengths while underestimating its competitors.
But Heins recognizes the changed reality of today’s mobile landscape — and the changes in how we use our devices today. RIM says it’s poised for a comeback and recognizes that though a downward slide happens fast, a turnaround takes time.
As a former BlackBerry owner, and someone who does, in fact, sometimes miss that distinctive keyboard, I’ll be interested in seeing what they come up with. I always like to root for an underdog, though who would’ve guessed in 2008 that RIM would be one in 2013? But assuming I like BB10, and assuming there’s something distinctive and better about it — and those are very big assumptions — it will be at least a year or two before I go back because of my contract. In mobile years, that’s half a lifetime, maybe not enough for RIM to regain its stature, or just enough to finish it off entirely. ♦