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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

BlackBerry: the End of an iconic smartphone

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

With the announcement by BlackBerry, the pioneer of the world’s first smartphone, about the end of the production of the device, the once-mighty tech giant displayed a new way of admitting a failure, a new way of looking forward and implied an old way of dealing with something that it could not defy during the most tumultuous years of the relatively-young company.

In the early years of this century, say between 2004 to 2007, carrying a BlackBerry was much more intensely fashionable than carrying a modern smartphone like an Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, because it was the only one available then.

On a normal working day on a train on the London Underground, for instance, you could see legions of white-collar workers making themselves busy by communicating with BlackBerrys, as if nothing existed beyond the user in question; the passion of the individual often could be read on his or her face while using the BlackBerry.

There were obvious reasons behind the phenomenon: It could do a lot of things, which a contemporary mobile phone could never perform at that time; it was an elegant gadget at that time and had a distinctive appearance – the external QWERTY keyboard, which eclipsed the smaller screen just above it; it had its own web browser, email client and above all, BBM the BlackBerry Messenger – the unique messaging service that made the communication between its users so easy.

In this context, not only was it the smartphone that everyone fancied, but also the one which could address a catalogue of user needs at the same time. So, it was as if the cooperate world could not function without arming the executives with BlackBerrys in order to make the global reach effective, reliable and cheap.

In 2007, however, the company was dealt a heavy blow out of the blue. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, in a major Apple Event, announced that he got the real alternative to the existing market leader s including BlackBerry – the doomsday for the company.

While drawing a horizontal line between the screen and QWERTY keyboard, Mr Jobs mocked the manufactures for giving a significant space to a keyboard at the expense of the screen. In order to address the issue, Mr Jobs said that Apple reinvented the mobile phone that would have a screen which could serve both purposes as and when the need arises.

Steve Jobs was right. His iPhone did have a full screen and keyboard could be activated as a virtual component, when we really need it. In fact, it was the watershed moment for the smartphone industry.

While bringing the interactivity to the screen and making the physical keyboard redundant, iPhone completely changed the landscape. When customers were in awe of the smartphones with touch screens, BlackBerry still stubbornly stuck to its original design – planting both screen and the keyboard on the phone – in the hope that customers would still love the brand for being conservative.

It was a massive miscalculation; adding insult to injury, its most popular messenger service, the BBM, started breaking down across the globe with an increasing frequency. By 2010, BlackBerry started losing its customers at a fast pace and in 2013, it may have realized that the company has reached the point of no return as far as smartphone industry is concerned.

When customers started embracing smartphones based on Apple’s IOS operating system and Google’s Android operating system, BlackBerry didn’t show the sign of an evolution; on the contrary, it just tried to undermine the increasingly popular brands, but without a significant change in their own products.

In short, the disproportionate focus on undermining its competitors instead of giving priority to innovation sealed the rapid descent of a great brand on a downward spiral. BlackBerry just did what the proverbial man, who fell into a hole, was not supposed to do – digging more and more.

Instead of focussing on salvaging the iconic smartphone, BlackBerry embarked on a disastrous mission: it introduced a competitor to iPad, which turned out to be a flawed invention at the very outset.

The catalogue of failures compelled even its most loyal customers to leave the brand in droves. Neither the change of CEO’s nor the mimicking the market leaders in the smartphone realm managed to woo back customers.

While sensing the inevitability, John Chen, the CEO of BlackBerry, said in 2015 that he would make a decision within a year by taking into account the ground realities. True to his word, Mr Chen announced that the company was going to stop the production of the smartphone – bringing an iconic brand to its end on a very sour note.

Mr Chen also said that the phone may be produced by license-holding outsiders in future – a new way forward for a company of this calibre. He admitted that he could not bring BlackBerry to a standard which could potentially challenge Apple or Samsung – admitting failure.

It is an important lesson for the other major brands in the technological sector too, as they may potentially face the same fate at an unexpected time – unless the complacency is kept in check; the failure of BlackBerry shows us the notion that a brand or an institution is too big to fail is just a self-delusional myth.

- Asian Tribune -

BlackBerry: the End of an iconic smartphone
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