After what seemed like an interminable pregnancy, BlackBerry (the new corporate name; Research In Motion is history) delivered some very nice hardware running an impressive new operating system. The all-touch Z10 is available immediately in Great Britain, next week in Canada and in March in the U.S. The Q10, with a traditional BlackBerry keyboard, is due in April.
The new products have a lot to offer. The Z10 looks pretty much like every contemporary smartphone–a black slab with a 4.2″ display that puts is between the iPhone 5 and the somewhat bigger run of Android handsets. But it features a unique gesture-driven, messaging-centric operating system that combines some of the better features of the late, lamented webOS and Windows Phone 8 and which is its main selling point. Unlike the painful compromises of previous BlackBerry software, the QNX-based BlackBerry 10 is fully touch-optimized and is fluid and highly responsive. Its gestures take a bit of learning, but not very much.
But the new BlackBerry is not going to sell itself in a world thoroughly dominated by iPhone and Android. And the marketing message at BlackBerry’s Jan. 30 launch event was a bit muddled. It’s an old truism in marketing that if you are trying to sell to everyone, you are targeting no one and the BlackBerry approach seems somewhat unfocused.
One symptom of that was the announcement that Alicia Keyes would be BlackBerry’s new creative director, but it was far from clear what her task is. Asked about it at a press conference, she offered something vague about increasing its appeal to the entertainment industry and to women. But one market is too narrowand the other too diffuse to be addressed meaningfully. I suspect Keyes will have about as much impact for BlackBerry as the Black-eyed Peas’ will.i.am has had in a similar role at Intel.
To have a chance of success (which I define, at least initially, as beating out Microsoft to become the No. 3 smartphone platform, a definition BlackBerry seems to share), the new phones have to win over several key markets.
The Die-hards. The core of dedicated BlackBerry users still hanging on to their Bolds and Torches are the lowest-hanging fruit. BlackBerry has to migrate them to the new platform as quickly as possible. They will be helped in this effort by the fact that radical as the new software is, it maintains a certain essential BlackBerry-ness. An example: I was annoyed by the fact that the mail program asked for confirmation each time wanted to delete a message. But I found the toggle to turn that off exacty where I, as a longtime BlackBerry user, expected it to be.
The BYOD Crowd. This is a much tougher audience. Corporate IT managers, while grumbling about the traditional cost of BlackBerry services, have always liked having a platform that offered unified management and proven security. But they had been forced to accept the iPhones and Androids that esxecutives have brought into the system and now must manage a melange of devices. They are prime targets for BlackBerry but winning them over win’t matter un less marketers can also win back the execs who adandoned BlackBerry in the first place. One thing that will help is BlackBerry Balance, software that devides a device into a secure business partition and an open personal partition. Another, which could win me mover, is the integration of Evernote, the invaluable note-taking cloud service, into it Remember app, a sort of a cross between OneNote and Tripit.
The Message-centric. BlackBerry has always been primarily about messaging and the new versions do not ignore that heritage. While the rest of the system has been greatly beefed up, messaging remains paramount. If you are the sort of person who wants to know right away when an email message or a response to a tweet comes in–and want quick and easy access to it, the new BlackBerry is for you. The BlackBerry Hub, a central feature of the user interface, is the ultimate unified inbox. Marketing built around the BlackBerry’s messaging prowess could win over this audience.
BlackBerry has all the other smartphone bases covered, but not generally in a way that makes it a must have. The supply of available apps, somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 depending on who was talking and when, is pretty good for the launch of a new system. Most of the major categories are covered and those that are missing, including Netflix, HBO Go, and Instagram, are rumored to be not that far off. BlackBerry made it relatively easy for developers to port Android apps to BB10, and approach that accounts for about 40% of the initial offerings. The camera is good enough to be competitive, but isn’t a reason anyone will buy a BlackBerry.
One large group of current BlackBerry customers that will not be served by the new phones is the millions of buyers–many in emerging markets–of inexpensive Curves for whom the biggest attraction is BlackBerry Messenger. The Z10 and Q10 are expected to sell for around $200 on a two-year contract in the U.S., and if BlackBerry has plans to come up with a low-cost model for the Curve market, they aren;t talking about it yet.
The bottom line is that BlackBerry has given it a really good shot. To increase their chances of success in a very tough market, they need to refine their message and focus their marketing tightly on the groups they need to win.