The rise and fall of BlackBerry

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 2, 2013

I have never owned a BlackBerry and, from the looks of things, I never will.

Still, I always knew what the brand stood for. It was the phone of choice for corporate users who needed to check their e-mail swiftly and securely while on the move.

Its efficient data compression technology meant that users saved on data roaming charges. Its unique Qwerty keyboard built an entire generation of fans who could type as fast with their thumbs, as their fingers could on a keyboard.

In its heyday, it was the leader of the pack in the smartphone world and nobody, not even the mighty Nokia, could touch it.

Then, along came the iPhone and everything changed.

Suddenly, consumers were clamouring for touchscreen phones. It wasn't just the hardware that got them excited, but the software and the apps that came with it.

Push mail became de rigueur on all smartphones. You could get Gmail messages instantly on your iOS and Android devices, and as swiftly as BlackBerry's push mail. And these newbies had something BlackBerry did not - a proliferation of apps whose numbers were growing at an exponential rate.

Research In Motion (RIM), the original name of the Canadian outfit behind the BlackBerry, had to do something. But everything it tried just failed to catch fire. Its first touchscreen phone, the Storm, made little impact. Unlike the iOS and Android devices, this phone, although it had a touchscreen, required users to physically press down on the clickable screen to type, which was weird to say the least.

And when it finally launched the PlayBook tablet, which ran on the new QNX operating system - something forced upon RIM by the runaway success of the iPad - users found that they could not get their BlackBerry push mail on the PlayBook unless it was tethered to their BlackBerry phones. In effect, the PlayBook became an expensive extended monitor for the BlackBerry.

It simply did not make sense. Many suspected that the reason was that BlackBerry had not devised a secure method to move its e-mail service to the new operating system.

Early this year, BlackBerry made a bold, strategic shift by launching the delayed BlackBerry 10 operating system, its first platform that fully embraced its QNX operating system, complete with plenty of cool features such as the ability to run consumer apps as well as highly secure corporate apps on the same device.

But at the same time, the BlackBerry 10 Z10 phone no longer needed to work with BlackBerry servers. These servers were typically hosted by a telco for corporations that could not afford to have their own servers.

And that proved to be BlackBerry's undoing.

One of my lawyer friends, who ran his own small firm, was a loyal BlackBerry user for years. He liked the simplicity and the security of his BlackBerry devices as well as the Qwerty keypad. As an M1 customer, he paid the telco a monthly subscription for his BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) plan, where M1 hosted the BlackBerry servers for his company's push mail to work.

So when the new BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 were launched earlier this year, he walked into an M1 store to upgrade his old handset, only to find to his horror and disbelief that the new phones were not available to existing loyal BIS customers as the new OS no longer had a BlackBerry server to work with.

If he wanted to keep his push mail service, as well as everything else he used on his BlackBerry devices, he would need to stick to those devices.

I was shocked to hear this.

Shouldn't BlackBerry look after its long-time core users instead of trying to challenge Apple and Android, which already have a vice-like grip on the consumer smartphone business?

So when news broke last week that a lone suitor, Fairfax Financial, was willing to buy the once-mighty BlackBerry for just US$4.7 billion (S$6 billion), a fraction of the US$83 billion it was worth at its 2008 peak, I was not surprised.

The rise and rise of iOS and Android have transformed the market. The dramatic fall of former giants Nokia and BlackBerry is conclusive proof that no device manufacturer can stand still in the fast-moving and changing world of technology.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 2, 2013

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