BlackBerry’s new Passport is eye-catching. Women call it “sexy.” Men say it’s “cool.” And once they use it, iPhone owners apologetically concede that they “only have an iPhone.”
But does that mean BlackBerry is poised to regain a dominant share of the mass handset market?
Hold that thought. I’ll come back to answer that question in a minute.
I have to admit, when I saw the Passport for the first time a few months ago, I was skeptical. “A big, fat, square device? What? Didn’t BlackBerry say it was all but getting out of the device business?”
Now, I know better. BlackBerry has several new devices in the design/release queue.
Granted, the Passport may look like a misfit in a sea of norms, but that’s precisely what makes it such an elegant, modern conversation starter. I even conducted an informal experiment to prove it. After I received a Passport to use nearly three weeks ago, I tried it out, and then I shared it with random people so I could hear their opinions, too.
In all, I spoke with about 50 people, and the results are shown in Figure 1.
Whether I was standing in a TSA line at an airport, or minding my own business during a flight, people near me asked about the Passport. During a recent trip between Boston and Atlanta, Alexander, a Delta flight attendant, actually leaned over the passenger sitting next to me and asked, “Hey, is that the new BlackBerry? How do you like it?” Mind you, I was actually typing the first draft of this post on my Passport when he interrupted. I handed him the device and told him to try it out for a while. Then there was Sandra, a well-known graphic illustrator and personal friend, who I just happened to run into. “What the heck is that?” was quickly followed by, “This device is damn sexy! Is it really a BlackBerry? Can you get me one?”
One of the most surprising, if not insightful, conversations was the one I had with Brett Belding over dinner. Brett, who is responsible for the management and deployment of some 76K devices in his organization, told me: “I get what BlackBerry is doing here. It’s good. It’s innovative. And it’s about time. Apple’s iPhone democratized the market. Android came out and bottomed the market. BlackBerry’s biggest mistake is that they abandoned their core and chased the commoditizing consumer.”
He’s right, of course.
Before the iPhone was released in 2007, if you were sitting in a meeting or moving through an airport with a BlackBerry in your hand, you were somebody. You were important. You were a person on a mission to get things done, not play games. In fact, even in light of the overwhelming success of the iPhone, BlackBerry continued to grow unit sales for nearly four years after the iPhone was introduced. There’s no question that top to bottom, Apple’s application and device stack is the most complete. But perhaps therein lies the problem: Apple and Android solutions are good at many things, but great at nothing. Their phones are for the communized masses.
When someone says, “Well, I only carry an Apple,” they’re admitting to not feeling special. They don’t feel part of the elite culture of the movers or shakers who once carried a BlackBerry.
So rather than ask if BlackBerry can regain its dominance of the handset market, perhaps the better question to ask is this: Can BlackBerry regain its dominance as a status symbol?
But, the company has to clear a few hurdles.
First, let’s face it, BlackBerry has a long way to go – especially in the handset business. The BlackBerry graveyard is littered with plenty of evidence of past efforts: the underpowered “I can be like Apple” Z10, the “remember when” nostalgic Q10, the “I can be like Android” Z3… and the list goes on and on. Even BlackBerry’s Z30, which I regard as a very good device, was a marketing disaster. These and other missteps are why BlackBerry finds itself facing so many challenges today.
Second, BlackBerry’s app strategy is full of holes. The Passport natively supports both BlackBerry World and Amazon’s App store, and that’s two weak stores too many. And with OS version 3.1 you can even slideload the Google Play store with an application called Snap. BlackBerry needs to kill its BB World and Amazon stores as they exist and strike a deal with Google. If it doesn’t, no one will care that Passports (or future devices) have the critical items for executive users or brand affinity buyers (e.g. Porsche). The perception will linger that BlackBerry is not the premium supplier.
Of course, as we all know, past performance is no guarantee of future results –and in the case of BlackBerry, let’s hope that’s true. After all, the past disappointments around handsets have overshadowed the positive steps BlackBerry has taken with other products, in infrastructure and organizationally.
In one year, Blackberry’s new executive team has rescued the company from death’s doorstep and eliminated crucial business risk for its customers –and business risk, not technology risk, has been BlackBerry’s Achilles’ heel. Perhaps the most significant evidence for the progress is the visibility to BlackBerry’s most recent quarter, where 3.4 million licenses were issued for BES 10, almost tripling the 1.2 millions licenses in the prior quarter. Some dismissed this progress due to BlackBerry’s essential license trade-up giveaway owed to EZPass, but it’s worth noting that CIOs and IT Management are smart enough to know that even if something is free, it’s still too expensive if it’s bad. EZPass converts made good choices for good reasons.
It’s time the industry starts thinking about BlackBerry as a software and infrastructure company which also happens to makes handsets that cater to an elite market. Citrix, VMware, IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and Extreme Networks are its primary competitors, not MobileIron, Good Technology or SOTI.
BlackBerry may not be back yet, but I do think the company is finding its escape velocity. Now, the company must stay focused and execute. Company acquisitions and BlackBerry’s November release of its BES 12 network appliance should help carry the momentum.
And let’s not underestimate the “cool” factor. Based on my own research, people want the Passport because it’s different from the Apple norm we’ve been seeing since the first iPhone was introduced seven years ago. It has “cool” and “I’m important” written all over it. If BlackBerry can succeed in “bringing sexy back,” the Passport and perhaps BlackBerry has a real shot at becoming the new status symbol for a population desperately looking for something new.
This post was originally posted on Bob Egan’s Thing Mobile Blog on Forbes.com