Does Blackberry Deserve Canadians’ Scorn?

May 30, 2014 Ben Myers

Blackberry title

If you want a safe bet for winning over a crowd at a business event, it seems that taking a shot at Blackberry is always good for a chuckle.

Even in a crowd of a thousand, you won’t find many defenders for the maligned Waterloo-based company. In fact, it seems like the Canadian business and technology community has ganged up on the company formerly known as RIM, casting the brand out from our in-crowd as well as our pockets and purses. Those that do risk mockery by defending Blackberry do so with self-depreciation.

Blackberry used to be our champion; Indisputable proof that Canada could not only compete on a world technology stage, but be a leader.

When US President Barack Obama took office, he was a staunch user of Blackberry devices. Now that we’re well into his second term in office, using a Blackberry would be something of a relic for any business leader – let alone the leader of a nation.

Blackberry has made several unflattering PR gaffs and costly product errors over the past five years that has earned it the derision it’s now receiving.

Personality clashes and falling behind

In September 2013, the Globe And Mail picked apart the carcass of Blackberry in a long article called ‘Inside the fall of BlackBerry: How the smartphone inventor failed to adapt’, and outlined the reasons for its demise.

Like Steve Jobs of Apple, the leaders of Blackberry have become the icons of the company. But unlike Jobs, whose numerous character flaws were overshadowed by the enormous success of his company before his death, the executive infighting of co-CEOs Michael Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie revealed by the Globe article seem to (perhaps unjustly) precipitate the decline of the company.

“…After new rivals redefined the market, RIM responded with a string of devices that were late to market, missed the mark with consumers, and opened dangerous fault lines across the organization,” the article summarized.

“Let me remind you that at BlackBerry, we are not dwelling on the past. We are looking towards the future.”

Hockey and cynicism

To make matters worse, Balsillie, an ardent hockey fan and the Blackberry’s outspoken lead for marketing, further opened himself to ridicule by repeatedly failing in his attempts to purchase and bring an NHL franchise to Hamilton. The adulation he would have received from Canadian hockey fans had he succeeded, was minimized as each attempt was foiled by the NHL’s overseers. Cynicism, predictably, took hold.

Lazaridis and Balsillie, who were removed from their executive roles in early 2012, couldn’t agree on a direction for the company: Consumers or businesses? Touchscreen or physical keyboard? In the end, they mastered no quadrant of these devices and consistently lost market share to the iPhone and a wave of Android-based phones.

Still with a horde of cash, Blackberry could afford to retool and force itself back into the spotlight with ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.

Failure to launch

German engineer Thorsten Heins took over as CEO. He battled with Balsillie and Lazardis while they were in reduced roles as board members, according to the Globe & Mail, and oversaw the launch of the new Blackberry 10 (BB10) operating system, the Z10 touchscreen phone and the Playbook tablet.

On stage at the launch of the new Blackberry 10 operating system, Heins introduced singer Alicia Keys as the company’s new Global Creative Director. Suspicions of a superficial celebrity endorsement were confirmed when Keys was caught tweeting with an iPhone within weeks of the appointment (she claimed her Twitter account was hacked).

Canadian technology site Mobile Syrup was, in retrospect, damning with its faint praise of the BB10 devices, noting that the entire OS ecosystem suffered from a lack of developer support and apps.

Before the iPhone, there was no North American company better positioned to court software developers for mobile devices. By 2012, its lead had been completely squandered. The website wrote:

“At launch, even with 70,000 compatible apps and despite a number of absolutely killer features, the Z10 does not overshadow the iPhone 5 on iOS 6.1 or the Nexus 4 on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean in terms of usability, speed or convenience. [...]

The Z10 is a great phone with a lot going for it; its success will largely depend on how RIM builds out its app ecosystem.”

Heins stepped down in November 2013 and was later replaced by John S. Chen. Characterized by the Globe & Mail as a ‘turnaround artist’, Chen’s introductory release was determined with a touch of apologetic.

“I know that it’s going to take time, discipline and tough decisions to reclaim BlackBerry’s success and we are ready for that challenge,” he said in the release.

Resurrecting the champ

Canada's top brands of 2014 according to Interbrand.

Canada’s top brands of 2014 according to Interbrand.

Canada needs Blackberry. Since 2011, Blackberry has slashed its workforce in chunks. This is more than unfortunate for the workers and their families who fall victim, it’s bad PR – a repeated reminder of the decreased clout of the company.

For the country, Blackberry’s decline is indicative of a technology sector without a local champion. In late May, Interbrand released its list 2014 list of Canada’s most valuable brands. Comparing the list to their worldwide brands (most recently from 2013) reveals a startling contrast.

In Canada, financial services and telecom dominate the top 10, including three banks in the top four. Worldwide, technology brands comprise the majority of the Top 10, with Google, Apple, Microsoft, and IBM comprising four of the top five.

These rankings should not be taken as purely as result of revenue or profit. Interbrand uses a combination of financial analysis, demand analysis and competitive analysis including its own brand strength metrics to determine the order.

Even a weakened Blackberry was the fourth-ranked brand in Canada in the 2012 report. This year, it failed to crack the top 25.

Chen plays on the resurrection theme often. In his introductory release, he plainly states his objective to correct a failing brand.

“As you know, this is a time of significant change at BlackBerry as we accelerate our efforts to transform our business.

I know there has been a lot said about BlackBerry, but let me remind you that at BlackBerry, we are not dwelling on the past. We are looking towards the future.”

Potential turnaround

We have seen remarkable transformations in the technology industry. Yahoo! has regained much of its stature after securing Marissa Mayer as CEO in July 2012. Spending some of its cash reserves on content-focused companies like Tumblr, and more than doubling its share price since that time.

Apple is another turn-around project that broke through with a revolutionary and unforeseen device: iPods. Over time, this one product led to the adoption of the iTunes store and Mac computers on a previously unforeseen scale.

While great expectations and tremendous talent lie in many of Canada’s web-based startups, Blackberry’s Canadian hardware and software development are unique. Among Canadian technology companies, it is still the leader in terms of both brand recognition and revenue.

Though Blackberry may now be receiving the backlash from years of poor strategic decisions and public relations misfires, it remains Canada’s best hope for our technology sector. If Blackberry’s quick decline can teach us any lesson, it’s that today’s tech superpower could be next year’s opening joke.

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