While our very own Jeff Bacon was in Orlando, Florida, for BlackBerry World to provide his unique brand of analysis, I can’t help but take a crack at something that has been running through my mind since last week’s keynote (the highlights of which can be found here).
The first to be led by new CEO Thorsten Heins, the keynote marked a clear articulation of the BlackBerry brand and RIM’s focus for BlackBerry 10. In an attempt to articulate the aspirations of “BlackBerry People”, Heins claimed that BlackBerry is about success. If BlackBerry smartphones are designed for successful ‘doers of things’, BlackBerry 10 will make it even easier for them to get things done.
While Thorsten’s keynote was perhaps the clearest articulation ever of what BlackBerry as a brand entails (who needs a CMO, right?), it did ring a little familiar. So familiar, in fact, that Jordan Crook of TechCrunch has lamented that RIM is trying to recapture a past glory that is no longer possible.
Crook’s displeasure mostly stems from comments made by Vivek Bhardwaj, Head of Software Portfolio EMEA for RIM, who stated in an interview prior to the event that BlackBerry isn’t necessarily for everyone. Here’s an excerpt:
There’s this market full of people who care first and foremost about messaging and social networking. Yes, apps are important, browsing is important, and games are important, but those aren’t what they value when they first use a smartphone.
They desire living technology — things they connect to and live and breathe by. BlackBerry is something people are always connected to. It’s an extension of their arm. That’s the type of audience we’re going for. What we’re trying to do is take the user interface and the design, and map it to the things they value like conversations and community, while making sure there’s no lag.
Cook takes this to mean that RIM “wants to be the king of messaging again.” What’s the problem with being the king of messaging in 2012? Well, messaging isn’t a differentiator anymore, it’s minimum viable product (MVP) for smartphones.
iMessage does basically the same exact thing as BBM now, but on an iPhone, and there are dozens of SMS-substitute apps (like WhatsApp) on both the App Store and Google Play. Granted, RIM still dominates in terms of secure corporate email and enterprise familiarity/reliability, but that consumer market has wandered elsewhere, searching for a little magic instead of a trackpad.
Messaging isn’t really a focus at all in today’s competitive landscape. Just because people are hyper-connected, socially active online, cognizant of their schedule, and constantly in communication, it doesn’t mean that they’re “BlackBerry people”. Hell, we buy phones to communicate, and text messaging has outweighed voice calls for a while now.
Cook’s criticism is partially accurate. Watching the keynote demo focused on BlackBerry 10’s touch screen keyboard (frets! Improved predictive text!), one is inclined to believe that RIM’s plans rest on doubling down with the demographic of people that bought BlackBerry smartphones in 2004 because they were BlackBerry smartphones, not because they were the only viable smartphone at the time (apologies to the long dead Treo). But the ability to ‘get things done’ is now why smartphone are smart, and while there is a subset of people that will always crave the best in class communications (the aforementioned 2004 bracket of bankers, lawyers, and government stiffs), it is now a very slim slice of the mobile pie.
Of course, that wasn’t the only BlackBerry 10 keynote demo.
The above video demonstrates that RIM knows communication isn’t just about BBMs and emails anymore. It’s about HD photos and videos, Instagram and memespotting, playing Draw Something with Facebook friends, and a thousand other things that appeal to the average consumer. Ignoring for the moment a debate on the level of actual innovation in BlackBerry 10 (it has since been revealed that RIM didn’t develop the technology itself, but is in fact licensing it from Scalado), it’s clear that RIM is doing what it can to evolve, rather than recapture, its legacy.
One fancy demo (and to be honest, for an email junkie like me, the keyboard demo was cool too) does not guarantee salvation, but it does indicate that RIM finally recognizes the mobile game has changed. That’s an important step in learning how to win.