About 6 months before the original Blackberry email pager was introduced, I got a call from RIM asking if I would be part of their beta testing program before they released it. At the time, which was late 1998, the concept of mobile email was foreign to all. Businesses used email but their primary way of receiving and responding to email was via a PC or laptop. Consumers also were into email thanks to AOL’s and Compuserve’s dial up programs but they too mostly used desktops or laptops to do their email.
We almost forget the role of the pager back then but this was the best we could get in mobile devices, which primarily sent a phone number to the pager to tell the person to call back ASAP. Mostly used in medical, military and emergency services initially, by the mid 1990’s they were cheap enough for most business professionals to use and even some consumers who had need to be available at a moments notice.
By this time I lived and died by email. It became my main link between my clients and myself and was a major vehicle for how I got my work done. No longer a slave to the phone, my early Blackberry pager gave me my email anywhere I happened to be and allowed me to respond in real time. Like many Blackberry users in the late 1990’s, my Blackberry changed my business life and had a real impact on my family life too.
Over the next 10 years RIM created a powerful and secure email platform that was adopted in droves by businesses, government, military etc. Although they evolved the BlackBerry form factor significantly, they paid little attention to enhancing their OS exponentially in order to keep up with the major trend of smartphones and smart operating systems that came on the scene in early 2007. At first, RIM did not feel threatened by Apple’s original iPhone and even when it started getting some minor attention in business, the company was still clinging to its old OS and business model believing that their entrenched position in business, military and government was unshakeable.
But as history records, RIM did misjudge the impact of the iPhone on the entire smartphone market and to their chagrin, began unseating them in hundreds of business, military and government accounts, causing their fortunes to wane considerably. Up until the announcement of the new BB 10 OS last Wed and the new smarpthone designs they introduced in NYC, RIM was perceived by many as too late to now compete with Apple and Google/Android since together they own about 85% of the current smartphone market.
This fact is still true. Apple and Google’s market position in smartphones continues to grow and makes it hard for another smartphone OS to compete even if it is an innovative and solid offering. That said, I do believe that if a third or fourth mobile OS could compete it could be BB 10 and the market needs this extra competition for three reasons.
Competition is Healthy
First, competition is good for consumers since it sits at the heart of innovation. Although RIM will always be playing catch up, the fact that there is another OS that is really solid and competitive will only force Apple and Google to try harder and to innovate faster.
Second, it makes it more difficult for government officials to ever go after Apple or Google for monopolistic practices. While Microsoft and Nokia helped take some of the regulatory pressure off of Apple and Google, RIM only broadens the competitive landscape even if they only get a small share of the market in the future.
The third reason we need RIM is that there is a segment of the market that needs ultra secure devices and specialized email servers that RIM or Blackberry excels in. Apple and Google/Android has shown significant progress in providing secure email and an app environment but in some accounts they are still considered too weak for some with ultra secure email needs.
My Tech.pinions colleague, John Kirk, wrote a brilliant piece Thursday that lays out why Apple has won so much territory in the smart phone wars. He concludes that for Blackberry to be considered even remotely successful it had to be superior to what Apple and Google already has offered the marketplace.
Here lies my real concern for Blackberry and their new OS and phones. For all intent and purposes, it is a me too product that is barely equal to Apple’s iOS and iPhone offerings, and brings nothing new or superior to the smartphone table. When I saw the demos and looked closely at especially the BB Z 10, it looked pretty much like an iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy SIII.
While the new OS is excellent and runs some existing Android apps and will most likely get some support for native BB 10 apps, it brings nothing really significant to the table other than its reputation for providing highly secure email.
I don’t believe BB 10 has any real chance of catching up with either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. In fact, I suspect that if they have any success it will be in a niche area where extremely secure email tops the list of things needed in a smartphone platform.
Personally, I hope they do become competitive and over time deliver some innovations that set them apart from the competition. But I am willing to bet that when we look at the charts that layout smartphone market numbers later this year, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms together maintain at least 75-80% of that market. That leaves Microsoft and Blackberry to duke it out for the other 20% or so and a combined marketing effort from Microsoft and Nokia in 2013 could tip the balance in their favor.
I applaud Blackberry’s commitment to stay in the smartphone game given the beating they have taken over the last five years. However, if anyone thinks that their new OS and their new smartphones will cause Apple or Google any real headaches, they would be mistaken. At best, Blackberry can continue to compete in a market that is dominated by Apple and Google and their partners but I am very doubtful that they will have the kind of success they hope for in light of the momentum their competitors have in today’s smartphone market.