Any Hope For BlackBerry?

JLG’s Monday Note discusses the current state of affairs for BlackBerry (formerly RIM). Needless to say, none of the news is good or promising. But JLG makes one point late in his piece that I disagree with, specifically about the BlackBerry brand.

Damaged Brand

JLG says that “The BlackBerry name, as a brand, is strong.” I would disagree. In my mind, the BlackBerry name is damaged, probably beyond repair. The only “strength” is that people do recognize it, but now for the wrong reasons. It represents failure. It represents what was once a source of pride for Canadians, but for me, it is more a source of embarrassment. Like Nortel, a once-great Canadian company is managed into the ground through a combination of indifference, a lack of vision and a degree of incompetence.

A strong brand is one that has positive associations with the present, or a strong, positive connection with the past and nostalgia. BlackBerry has neither of those. The brand isn’t old enough to be associated with anything truly historic, with any sort of “good times” or “golden age” from the past. Today, it represents a brand that is making desperate moves, and they look truly desperate. It is a brand without a goal or a purpose other than “please be nice so maybe I can be a success again”.

Does It Matter Anymore?

In his conclusion, JLG does suggest that BlackBerry try to adopt and move to Android, but also admits that it is probably too little, too late. The time for that was 2-3 years ago, when RIM was losing overall marketshare, had lost their lead in North America, and lost the enterprise to Apple and iOS. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but it didm’t take a lot of imagination to see that picking Android was like picking Windows in the late 1990’s. The market is a bit different, in that Android doesn’t have nearly the overwhelming lead that Windows had in PC’s, but it was clear that the iOS/Android juggernauts were the future for mobile computing. Microsoft responded too late to matter (and with a lacklustre entry into the space). The mobile king, Nokia, was demoted to irrelevance. RIM lost the enterprise. Reading those particular tea leaves wasn’t very hard.

Would a switch to Android have kept RIM on top? Probably not, but at least they likely would have been a relevant player. They had (and still have, for the moment) the strongest team when it comes to security and enterprise integration. Apple has made some serious strides, and Android is slowly evolving, but RIM understands mobile security and enterprise integration better than pretty much every mobile vendor. Had they brought those skills to Android, it would have made for a powerful platform. They would have had the Google Play app inventory (and all of it, not the tiny sliver that BB10 supports now). They would have been able to appeal to millions of Android developers.

However, that moment is gone. Their strength in security and enterprise is fading fast, as companies like Apple start to catch up. Instead of being a solid #3 or #4 (after Samsung and Apple, and probably competing with HTC) in handset unit sales, RIM is now pretty much relegated to the “other systems” slice of the handset sales pie. Their systems don’t matter in the overall operating system picture. Their share as a handset maker is irrelevant. They went from greatness and the top of the mountain to a sad place in the list of “might have beens” in the history of mobile computing.

But Couldn’t They Come Back?

Could they come back? History is not kind in this regard. There are only two stand-outs in technology companies coming back from near-death: IBM and Apple. DEC was once a leader, and now they are gone. Sun Microsystems is no longer. Palm tried and failed to make a comeback, first on their own, then as part of HP. The list of companies that had their day in the sun, diminished, and then came back as strong or stronger, is incredibly short.

BlackBerry’s only real value at this point is their patent portfolio. Their skills in handset hardware design are commodities, and their skill in industrial design is irrelevant. They have no meaningful ability to build brands or build a market presence. They still have some skilled technologists, but their best value is in the IP that the company still owns. What is it worth? Who knows. Someone might buy it, but it won’t do much to enrich the shareholders. Expect shareholders to get pennies on the dollar for their company.

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