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BlackBerry phone business ends not with a bang but a whimper

BlackBerry knows all about disruption.

It was the top smartphone brand when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007.

The phone maker continued to grow for the next three years. BlackBerry customer numbers didn’t peak until 2011.

It’s been downhill ever since


Last month BlackBerry finally threw in the towel. The company said it is shutting its phone business although it plans to live on as phone software and services business.

The decision to quit making phones came after BlackBerry failed to find any takers for its ill-conceived mid-range DTEK50 Android handset.

BlackBerry launched the DTEK50 in July. It was the last roll of the dice for the firm’s phone ambitions. And frankly, a very ordinary phone; not much of a swan song for a one-time champion.

The writing was on the wall a two or three years ago, but the end was clearly in sight by the time of the 2015 launch of the BlackBerry Priv. It had the classic BlackBerry hardware keyboard and some of the firm’s security features, but used the Android operating system.

Android was never going to work


Turning to Android was always an act of desperation although it’s hard to see what else BlackBerry could do. Nothing else it tried had worked.

In 2013 the company launched the BlackBerry 10 phone operating system. That was an attempt to reboot its hardware business while there was still a sizeable installed base of users.

The market did not bite.

BlackBerry 10 out on its own


BlackBerry 10 is unlike any other phone operation system. Instead of presenting users with an Apple, Android or Windows Phone-style home screen, everything revolved around the phone’s messaging features.

On one level that is smart — messaging is a core phone function. Most people spend a lot of their working day using communication tools such as voice calls, SMS messages, mail and so on. Putting this all in one hub along with social media notifications makes sense.

Except that work is only part of a phone’s job. People also use them for entertainment.

Too much like work


The BlackBerry 10 operating system always makes you feel like you’re at work. That might endear BlackBerry to slave-driving company bosses that buy phones to give to staff. It’s no way to win friends among the masses. Almost no-one spend their own money on a BlackBerry.

The other odd thing about BlackBerry 10 is that it is all gesture-based. The gestures aren’t hard to learn and use, but it doesn’t remotely resemble any other phone operating system.

Another thing BlackBerry 10 got right from the company phone buyer perspective was the baked-in security. You could set boundaries between personal and work phone use.

Again, this is hardly likely to be popular with ordinary folk. They would see this as a barrier between them and the fun aspects of owning a phone.

Software deficit


BlackBerry could probably have got away with all of this if only it could have persuaded the makers of popular phone apps to write software for its devices. They didn't. Even when they did, the apps were second rate or not updated.

The latest IDC smartphone figures measure market share for Android, iOS, Windows and others. BlackBerry 10 is not the only 'other' but all of them added together only make up 0.3 percent of the market. That's a rounding error.

Lots of wise commentators offer theories and analysis on where BlackBerry went wrong.

The die was cast the day the iPhone launched. Among other things, BlackBerry wasn’t looking at the threat. Apple’s iPhone was seen as a consumer phone, BlackBerry made business phones.

Poor iPhone clone


When BlackBerry finally got around to responding to Apple, it made a poor iPhone clone with a weird OS. Perhaps if it had at that point extended the classic BlackBerry keyboard phone range into the consumer space it might have won repeat business from its own customers.

Instead, they picked up Apples and Androids instead. BlackBerry’s 2013 reboot was at least 18 months too late and the phones were lacklustre.

For the last three years BlackBerry has talked about playing to its clear strengths. It knows how to make phones secure and it knows how to help company technology departments integrate phones into enterprise IT. There is a future in that.

BlackBerry phone business ends not with a bang but a whimper was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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