Could This Be Any Less Helpful?

An article in the Globe & Mail posits a way to “start fixing BlackBerry”. The problem? There wasn’t a truly useful or meaningful suggestion. Worse, the writer fails to challenge one of their sources on an inconsistency in the industry.

The “Suggestion”

The author’s supposedly insightful advice doesn’t come until the very end, and is one item: get executives from companies not looking at BYOD that are BlackBerry users, and ask them what BlackBerry did wrong. How on earth will this help? These are executives that are already buying BlackBerry devices. They are already customers. Will they have some insights? Sure, they’ll have some. They’ll re-iterate all the known problems with the most recent products. But they won’t ever provide insight into how BlackBerry can make a go of it, because they continue to be believers in the product.

Of course, the suggestion for audience selection is based on the idea that half of all businesses are now using a BYOD policy. First, far more than half have talked about it. But less than half have implemented it. Yes, it is growing. But many things can change over time, and we may find that BYOD slows, or even retreats. It depends entirely on how the whole thing plays out, and what sorts of unanticipated problems start to arise. I won’t say definitively that BYOD will slow in the short term, stop completely and possibly even reverse. But I will say that taking a wait-and-see approach, or an incremental implementation approach, would be prudent for any business.

Harping on BYOD overlooks something else: even companies that aren’t going BYOD are picking iOS (and occasionally Android) as their mobile platform of choice. There’s a reason that iOS is now around 55-60% of corporate mobile devices, and it isn’t just because of BYOD and consumer involvement (hint: it’s because companies are picking it as well).

Inconsistencies Unchallenged

The unnamed executive interviewed for some of the article’s information made a point that gave rise to a statement that went unchallenged:

The dominance of just two smartphone platforms—Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android—frightens him. And so it should.

The problem? These self-same people said virtually nothing about PC’s being dominated by an operating system from a single company, namely Microsoft. Zip. Nil. Nada. They also hardly squeaked when the previously-dominant platform was almost completely controlled by a single company, specifically mainframes and IBM. In fact, many people viewed these situations as a good thing. It meant standardization, it meant a deep software catalog, and it meant easy access to skilled talent in the relevant technologies. Some of these same people would complain about having “too many standards” and “incompatibility” when looking at platforms like UNIX.

They were also quite happy when Blackberry dominated the smartphone market in the business world in North America. Somehow having a single company hold a monopoly on a platform is okay, but having two companies is somehow bad. It’s a sad day when supposedly smart people can’t recognize a double-standard when it emerges from their mouths (or keyboards).

You would think that, for once, the corporate world would be happy to have a choice between two very viable platforms with deep software catalogs and an immense amount of available talent for custom development. Instead of having only one meaningful platform to choose from, meaning no choice at all, businesses can make a choice. They can compare them, and select the one that makes the most sense for them. And they do so without worrying about whether there is software available, people who know how to use it, and whether the platform will be there a year from now or not.

Having smartphones being guided by consumers, and provided by two companies, is arguably a good thing. It spurs innovation. It works to keep prices in check in some cases. We all know what happens when a single company controls something. They get lazy, they get complacent and they get arrogant. Quality suffers and customer input is ignored. Just look at IBM in the 1990’s, Microsoft today and BlackBerry itself. To say that having two companies controlling smartphones is “scary”, but ignore that BlackBerry once controlled the game (and screwed it up) and not make the same assertion, is nonsense.

So What Should John Chen Do?

If John Chen is going to sit down with anyone, it should be people who either had BlackBerries and abandoned them, or companies and consumers that got on board with iOS or Android without ever owning a smartphone before. They might give some insight as to why they rejected BlackBerry. Talking to the converted is a waste of time. They already like the product, and they can’t tell you why it’s failing.

He should also take a long, hard look at the underlying technology, and recognize a simple fact: BlackBerry will not disrupt the smartphone market. Why? Because all they’ll make is another smartphone, and another smartphone won’t disrupt the current environment. Unless they come up with something completely different, their product will be “more of the same”. Their goal? To make it not “more of the same” in a way that matters to buyers. Taking Android, making it truly secure and coupling it with BlackBerry’s rock-solid integration environment would go a long way to making BlackBerry relevant. It would make BlackBerry’s industry-leading security available widely, but also open up BlackBerry devices to a wealth of apps that make these things useful. That won’t happen sticking with their current plan.

But, whatever John Chen does, it needs to be done with a combination of deep thought and courage, because BlackBerry is now at a “bet the farm moment” if they want to survive intact. If BlackBerry is to remain a single entity, it can’t do it by continuing down the same path. It might mean joining the same ocean of users (and supporting apps) as other Android handset makers, but BlackBerry will have two key differentiators: better enterprise integration and substantially better security. That matters to enterprise users, and might help gain some ground in the enterprise market for Android, because it is still trailing iOS.

Whatever vision is put forward, it has to be something more substantial than “be a niche player” or “attempt to retake the enterprise” without some statement about what the execution looks like. Those are meaningless, empty statements. There has to be substance behind the vision, otherwise it is merely talk, and everyone will continue to speculate what the real plan for the company is. No matter what they do, the company shouldn’t waste their time talking to the faithful. They need to talk to anyone else but current BlackBerry users, if they talk to anyone at all.