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Blackberry: Still looking smart

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:24 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

In a packed noisy hall on the Barcelona fairground I came across a middle-aged man driving a sports car at dangerous speeds. Jim Balsillie was wielding a tablet computer and was not to be interrupted until he had finished the race. Then the co-CEO of RIM put the Blackberry Playbook down and gave me a clear message - don't expect my company to give up on the smartphone race.

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Last Friday that appeared to be the message from Nokia's Stephen Elop as he unveiled his firm's smartphone partnership with Microsoft - "it's going to be a three horse race," he told us, and he wasn't including the Blackberry amongst the horses.

Jim Balsillie looked surprised when I suggested to him that his firm has been left behind by Apple and Android and now risked being run over by the Nokia/Windows machine.

"Are some people writing us out?" he asked in tones of wonderment, and then reeled off a string of impressive statistics: Blackberry was the number one phone in the UK in 2010, number one in the Americas, number two in smartphones around the world, and grew sales by 70% in 2010.

And he painted a picture of an even brighter future of continued growth, much of it coming from the Playbook he was still clutching. You might think there were now too many tablets out there, with impressive new Android slates this week from the likes of Samsung and HTC. But Mr Balsillie thinks there's going to be a big shift towards this form of computing, and that his PlayBook will be a standout device. "This is not just another tablet, it's the tablet," he told me.

Then he ran through the specs - full Flash, full HTML5, dual core processors, an open web environment and open tools. The word open kept coming up - without mentioning the iPad, he was sending a clear message that the PlayBook was going to do lots of things that Apple just won't allow. In the great philosophical battle between Apple's walled garden and Android's wild open spaces, it's clear which camp RIM is in.

So is he right about the ability of the Canadian firm to keep ahead of the game? Amidst all the noise about Apple and Android, Nokia and Microsoft it has been easy to forget about Blackberry. But there has been quite an extraordinary transformation in its image - from the exclusive tool of e-mail-obsessed business road warriors to teenage plaything. The free Blackberry Messenger service now seems to be the preferred communication channel for millions of 15 to 25-year-olds, for whom the acronym BBM has entered the language.

The worry must be that the high-end customers, on whom RIM had such a tight hold through corporate chief information officers, are beginning to desert. Those CIOs are often doing Blackberry no favours, imposing such strict limits on how staff use the smartphones - no apps unless we approve them - that they spark a revolt, with young executives demanding an iPhone instead.

And will those teenagers stick with Blackberry once they grow out of their BBM years? Or will they, along with large sections of the smartphone crowd, switch to Android, or even Windows Phone 7?

Well some interesting research from a company called MediaCells suggests that, in the short term at least, the Blackberry is not going to get squeezed out of the race. It has looked at the UK phone market in 2010, and made a prediction for this year. Mediacells reckons all the major operating systems - except Symbian - will enjoy rapid growth, but guess who will come out on top? Yes, the Blackberry, just edging out Android, followed by Apple, with Windows Phone 7 a distant fourth.

"RIM will continue to acquire consumers from ailing platforms," says the report, "as the social media consumer demands QWERTY capability for prolific updating of Twitter and Facebook."

At an awards ceremony in Barcelona last night, Apple's iPhone 4 won device of the year - though the company "couldn't be bothered to send someone along to collect the prize", as the compere Jonathan Ross almost put it. By contrast, HTC, which unveiled another clutch of good-looking Android phones at Mobile World Congress, was the manufacturer of the year, and its CEO Peter Chou did turn up, winning warm applause from the crowd.

The mobile industry, which admires but does not like Apple, has fallen in love with Android but perhaps it's time it paid just a little more attention to Blackberry.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thats lovely.

  • Comment number 2.

    abolsutely, and RIM are taking steps to make sure there are apps for it - make an app, get it accepted into their store, you get a free playbook. (offer closes soon). That kind of beats anything Microsoft is thinking of doing and shows a firm commitment to future development.

    It also should be backing the client-interface technology of the future too, HTML5 (and Flash for the present day). Even Microsoft thinks HTML5 is the future as it annoyed all its silverlight developers recently by suggesting that platform was not a priority for them (and when you realise WinPho7 is Silverlight-only you understand how useless MS management is)

    So, there's past, present and future fully organised by RIM. the new phones/tablets are pretty good and not as 'semi-smart' as the old ones were so I imagine great things for them.

    I'm still getting an Android though :)

  • Comment number 3.

    Wow AndyB, you totally missed the point of Microsoft's change in focus for Silverlight. It's not that Microsoft are dumping Silverlight. They are instead focusing less on the browser use of Silverlight and focusing more on it's use as the backbone for WinPhone7. Thats why HTML5 is more relevant in MS eyes for web use than Silverlight. Makes sense really.

    RIM and Blackberry are still big players in the market and this is great. I think the Smart-phone war we are going to see though will be more like a class war than a direct head to head. Android handsets seems to be cheaper and often offered free by carriers. RIM, Apple and MS handsets seem to be more feature rich, more intuitive in the design/OS and more exclusive due to the price point.

    This (IMO) is why we are seeing such a huge ramp up in Android phone usage. It's an obvious entry point for most phone users. People always like something fancy and free and for most Android owners it is their first Smart-phone. Certainly this seems to be the case with my friends and family. Android seem to have cornered the market of people who are previously used to getting a free handset every 12/18 months and wouldn't consider paying several hundred pounds for a phone.

    Pleased to see RIM are still in the fray!

  • Comment number 4.

    RIM cannot be counted out.... yet.... but they must do a refresh of their smartphone range. I've been a devotee of BlackBerry for many years but have now joined the cult of iPhone. I've got both the torch and the iPhone 4 and the only thing the torch is good for is as a paperweight, it is so far below the iPhone bar on the user experience that I wonder if they will ever get their mojo back.

    As for the PlayBook - i like it. It is a solid offering and pretty nice to use, the dev story would be a good one - if it was complete, their API's aren't fully featured yet, and considering the launch was meant to be back in November I'd say they were failing to deliver. The real question for the PlayBook though is will it be as good or better than the iPad2????

  • Comment number 5.

    Walled garden or wilderness? Well, there's certainly an attraction in 'the call of the wild', I'll admit. But at the same time, that's the problem with it: unchecked undergrowth, and potentially nasty things lurking in the tangled thickets... while the walled garden looks nicer, neater, and a whole lot safer. And with our phones rapidly turning into our wallets/portable bank accounts in the very near future, I think I'll stick inside the walled garden for now, until I can be absolutely guaranteed safe passage through the wilderness....

  • Comment number 6.

    Graphis. One thing about Blackberry development that isn't always mentioned is the fact that it's not a totally wild environment. ( It's more a semi-walled garden. ) To use certain parts of the Blackberry API's in an app you need a signing key from RIM. This adds traceability to the app.

    Oh, and Gav_Adam. I've got a Storm 2 and wish I'd waited for the Torch as that appears to do everything I want.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    Its simple to forget that, for the most part, MS has handed them the corporate market with it's Windows Phone OS that barely caters for them. Companies have tried iOS (unsafe) and some still rely on Windows Mobile but that's a dead OS and it's time is short. Android has made concessions but I rarely hear it mentioned in corporate circled, especially with few QWERTY devices in the transitional BB form. In fact it is quite strange just how the consumer has had all concessions with each of these new systems and the corporate Market has been nearly forgotten.

    Ian McGurren, editor

  • Comment number 9.

    AndyB: Windows Phone 7 isn't Silverlight only, developers can also use XNA.

  • Comment number 10.

    Pendlemac. "semi-walled garden" just isn't good enough, I'm afraid. Would you live in a house with no door? As far as I'm concerned, if there's a clear way in, there's a clear way for my data/financial information to leak out. And I think that, as our phones increasingly contain more and more personal and important information, instead of just an address book, protecting that information is going to get more and more important too. I predict that everyone will be "walling their garden" eventually, following Apple's lead...

  • Comment number 11.

    Sorry Graphis but your deluded if you think the wall in your garden is adding any additional security. Sure there is a wall but when that wall is only 1ft high there really isn't anyway of stopping people just stepping over it.

    The iPhone is no more secure than any other phone platform. I am an iPhone user and aware of several flaws with the iOS operating system's security. The network connection issue is particularly bad.

    Apple create the illusion of control but all they control is how people make money off their platform. The handsets are just as flakey and flawed as the rest of them. The one thing that Apple do well (and MS also do i believe) is ensure that carriers and users update to the latest version of the OS and apply any patches. This is still an issue with Android phones although I here from friends it's getting better.

  • Comment number 12.

    The walled garden is about controlling content (and the money that people pay for it) - not security, e.g. Jobs has said he doesn’t want porn on his products.

    As for RIM, well they make phones with physical keyboards, that’s probably their biggest selling point and currently there are only few Android phones that have keyboards, Droid/Milestone being one of the biggest and that has no carrier in the UK.

    But I question whether companies will go for RIM’s eco system in the long term, for a company having to support an app on multiple eco system costs money, when cash is tight the question becomes, which eco system should we drop support for.

    But maybe I’m wrong, after all we’ve not seen multiple eco systems being supported before in this scale, there’s no Microsoft Office to keep everyone on just one OS with mobiles.

  • Comment number 13.

    Blackberry is dead. Corporately everyone was Blackberry or windows7 as soon as they see Apple iPhone4 Blackberry and Windows phones become history.

    Looks like they can join the living dead of LG, Motorola, SE and Nokia.

    Bye bye

  • Comment number 14.

    I wouldn't write them out as it would be foolish to do so. It seems more youth are buying Blackberry's so they will continue to grow. Write em off at your peril

  • Comment number 15.

    Im in university at the moment and every1 has a blackberry or and iphone 4 or both BB is certainly not out of the race. BB is cool MS7/ Nokia is not simple.

  • Comment number 16.

    "This is not just another tablet, it's the tablet," he told me.

    How can it be "the tablet" when it isn't even on sale? How long have they been talking about this elusive tablet? As it is the iPad 2 will certainly beat it to market and yet he he is comparing a tablet that isn't even on sale yet with the iPad that has been on sale for going on a year. I kinda feel a little embarrassed for the poor guy.

  • Comment number 17.

    RIM are very much in the running especially since they have a huge investment in the business market and millions of business users. They are late coming to the table with a touch phone and as a touch phone the iphone is superior for user experience. However the BB wins hands down when it comes to data compression and security and worldwide coverage making it the perfect business tool compared to that the iphone is a toy. To replicate RIMS coverage across the globe would cost billions in infrastructure.So as long as they get their act together over the touch screen phone they should do well in future.

  • Comment number 18.

    In an uncertain market, the only winning strategy is the "plays nicely with others" one. If you build walled-off proprietary models at this time, you're doomed. The moment anybody comes along and offers interoperability with other people's platforms, developers will jump at it.

    The first ones to form alliances, in this mexican standoff, will be the winners, simply because the developers will jump to them and start delivering content for them because they want their products to be long lasting, and independent of the fortunes of some limbering great giant of a previous age. The developers know what the market wants, because they sell it to the market - at around ten to fifteen dollars a pop - or less!

    That's the scale and location of the profit margins in this new market, and it makes the operating system or the hardware almost irrelevant. Both the traditional big-ticket items have become commodity items, on top of which ten dollar applications get sold to millions of people and vast fortunes are made.

    The way to success, in this market, as a supplier of the big ticket items, is in claiming not to want to own the market in the first place. This is why Google wins so many developer's votes, because they know Google's business model doesn't need software or hardware sales: it just needs developers writing software that feeds off and funnels traffic to Google's online services. That's the scary thing about Google, you see? The consumer is no longer the customer: they're the product.

    That's the truth, and it's why Microsoft and Nokia are looking more and more like Honeywell/DEC, with each passing day, and why Apple are looking more and more like, well... Apple always did.

    If Apple and Google hadn't fallen out with each other, they'd have the entire market wrapped up, like Christmas, by this stage - but the trouble with Apple, is that, like all Apples, they'd rather have one summer ripening in the sunshine, than a decade stored in the barn.

  • Comment number 19.

    I wasn't suggesting the iPhone was more secure: but the "delusion" of more security can act as more security in itself. I once knew a man who had a painted biscuit tin hanging on a nail outside his house. But it looked like a burglar alarm, and it worked just as effectively as an expensive system. I've worked in the security industry, and I know that if someone is absolutely determined to get in somewhere, physically or not, they will: most security is a "delusion", it's really just there to make it more of a hassle.

  • Comment number 20.

    BB is strong with Enterprise and texting teens, but the full OTA sync experience is only available to users with Exchange/BES, either through a corporate server or a hosted service.

    For prosumers and SMBs, BES provisioning not only doubles hosting costs but often incurs a higher monthly fee from the carrier.

    Devices that support ActiveSync, ie most smartphones apart from BB, provide all this functionality, albeit without the last ounce of security, at much reduced cost and complexity.

    This gray and growing area between Enterprise and Consumer is low hanging fruit for iOS/Android/WP7, and ultimately poses a significant threat to RIM's business model.

  • Comment number 21.

    I have used WinMo, Android and now using WP7, my brother has an iPhone4 and sister has a BB. Generally speaking, these devices all cater for different sectors of the market, BB is for teens mainly because of its IM and keyboard and Corporates because of security. iPhone4 is for those that know nothing about smartphones but want one, Android is for geeks/nerds, WP7 is abit of all as MS has the relationship with Corporates and geeks, and now they are trying to aim for the average consumer with a simplified modern OS.

    MS handed the business sector to BB with lack of investment in the old OS and I feel BB is following in their footsteps. The Playbook is new and wonderful for a RIM product, the Torch, although pretty, has specs from a few years ago and it shows in using the phone with plenty of lag. BB needs to work on its touchscreen phones and improve on its smartphone OS, possibly porting the Playbook OS to its phones.

    I think the Nokia/MS partnership could work well, although the industry isn't particularly happy, mainly because of the damage it could cause to its competition. WP7 is slow to get going but that's to be expected as the market has evolved and become more competitive in the last year or two. RIM need to move faster and offer a broad range of devices as it will help attract different type of new customers other than teens and corporate users.

    In the corporate environment, many employees HAVE to use a BB because of its advantages and they also have a different second device for personal use. This mobile industry is going through a very competitive period, it would be interesting who comes out on top in a few years time. MS wont the PC war, who will win the mobile war?

    P.S. I wouldn't rely too much on numbers from an Ex-executive/Executive about their company, best sticking to industry specialists research/analysts.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 23.

    Blackberry/RIM still in the game? Me think he doth protest too much. A CEO pumping his company - someone take me over please!!

    History is unkind but suggests only 3 platforms will survive; Android, Apple and MS7/Nokia in that order of magnatude.

    RIM have had a great run but their walled garden cannot work unless it delivers a markedly different and enhanced experience - RIMs does not. Apple have learned this as adaptions to the apps store shows.

    Bye bye Blackberry you are history.


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