Why History Shows That BlackBerry is Doomed

By Chris Mills on at

If there was one word to sum up general opinion on the BlackBerry 10 launch, it would be 'meh'. There's a feeling that it's too little, too late. But we've been here before -- back in 2009, with Palm, and it seems that BlackBerry's going the same way.

There's obvious similarities between Palm and BlackBerry as companies. Palm was the machine that basically invented mobile back in 1996; for nearly a decade, PDAs were synonymous with Palm Pilots. It dabbled in smartphones in the mid-2000s, with Palm OS and Windows Mobile devices like the Treo. Its final move was the launch of the Palm Pre and webOS in 2009.

Blackberry's history reads remarkably similarly. Ten years ago, it had a killer idea, and was the first to put real email in your pocket. It stuck with its tried-and-tested formula and ignored innovation, eschewing a radical shake-up of its so-called 'smartphone' line; the only concessions to modernity were the terrible Torch abominations. Now, it's taken some time (and boy, has it taken its sweet damn time) to come up with a completely different and a re-written operating system, complete with a couple of radically different handsets to boot. So, it's fair to say that BlackBerry's in the same boat as Palm was in 2009, when it unveiled the Palm Pre to the world at CES.

BB10 shares a startling (should that be 'worrying'?) number of similarities with Palm's webOS too. Card-based 'multitasking' that promises the ability to jump between open apps? Check. Heavy reliance on gestures? Check. Palm even shouted from the rooftops about Synergy, its contact-aggregation feature that pulled together your contacts from different services and brought them together under one roof. That sounds disturbingly familiar -- BB10 has a fairly strong emphasis on pulling contact information from Facebook, LinkedIn etc. into its contact database.

Then, of course, there's the physical keyboard. Palm made the bold decision to launch the Pre as a portrait-slider, packing a physical keyboard. Since the Pre line bit the dust, it's difficult to think of a truly flagship phone that's had a Qwerty keyboard. The Motorola Droid 4, perhaps, but calling that a 'flagship' phone is dubious at best. Now, BlackBerry's trying to make Qwerty relevant again with the Q10.

The point, with all of these similarities, isn't that there's something fundamentally wrong and off-putting about them. Rather, it's that no one really cares about a few software flourishes. No one's ever bought an Android phone because of the manufacturer's skin on top, no one bought a Palm device because of the pretty graphics, and no one is going to buy BB10 because of a few OS gimmicks. The reason why the tech world is so underwhelmed by BB10, and the reason why RIM BlackBerry stock is diving, is not because it's a bad operating system. It's just that none of its stand-out features, the ones pushed hard at the launch event, are actually stand-out. Put simply, BlackBerry's given no good reason to choose a BB10 device over iOS, Android or even Windows Phone.

There's another problem. When it launched the Pre, Palm seemed to be targeted at women (I mean, c'mon, why else would there be a mirror on the back?), but it screwed up its message with a series of weird and slightly creepy adverts.

Now, we haven't seen BlackBerry's marketing strategy as of yet, but I fear that it's already alienated its target market -- the world of business. RIM was popular with businesses because of stellar IT integration, top-notch encryption, and reliability. We didn't hear a peep out of BlackBerry about those features at the BB10 launch event; rather, we got someone having their ponytail cut off, a BlackBerry rap, and some random celebrity selling her soul to Thorsten Heins.

The point is that BlackBerry isn't presenting itself as the mature, grown-up company that it needs to if it wants to re-capture the hearts and minds of businesses. A few little software frills like BlackBerry Balance aren't going to cut it, I'm afraid. If BlackBerry's hiring of Alicia Keys to be its resident creative douche is any indication, BlackBerry is going to make the cringe-worthy mistake of trying to push BB10 as a platform for creative people with unique needs blah blah blah.

This is a mistake. Just as Palm should have focused on their traditional stronghold of super-organised power users, BlackBerry should be aiming itself squarely at companies. Apart from an awkward flirtation with BBM-obsessed tweens, BlackBerry doesn't really know the consumer market -- the only people its ever been good at selling to are IT managers and President Obama. So why not do so?

In its defence, BlackBerry has done a few things right. Palm ballsed-up the launch of the Pre big time, by having a 6-month delay between launch and the product actually going on sale. Refreshingly, BlackBerry seems to have done the Z10 launch about right, with no delay between launch and being on-sale here in the UK. (Though delaying the Q10 for two months, on the other hand, could prove to be a catastrophic mistake.)

It's also made a concerted effort to get developers on board. When Palm launched in 2009, it had a ludicrously puny 30 apps ready to be downloaded. BlackBerry's done much better, bribing devs with money and a half-decent SDK. Even so, until it gets really big-name game studios and apps like Spotify on board, it'll still be struggling against even the likes of Windows Phone.

Ultimately, BlackBerry hasn't shown the world what we wanted it to. We wanted to be blown away by something impressive and cutting-edge. BlackBerry quite singularly failed on that front, and therefore failed to make itself relevant again. I have no doubt it'll hang on for a while, but without a surge of early adopters and developers to drive the platform, its long-term future is built on some shaky foundations.