Blackberry boss - don't underestimate us


RIM chief executive Thorsten Heins talks through the Blackberry 10 system

The last time I met a Blackberry boss it ended rather badly. Eighteen months ago Mike Lazaridis, then co-CEO of RIM, took exception to a question and terminated our encounter. So I was very grateful that Thorsten Heins, now in sole charge, agreed to meet me this week and give me so much of his time.

He took over in January, after Mr Lazaridis and his co-CEO Jim Balsillie stepped down, battered by the crisis at the Blackberry company which probably explained the tensions of our interview the previous spring.

With its share of the smartphone market heading south and investors agitated about the precipitous fall in the share price, Mr Heins faced an unenviable challenge. When I asked him how much progress he made, he took me through a list of management changes and restructuring initiatives.

But he knows his real challenge is to turn around perceptions of Blackberry.

Last week the New York Times ran a feature which could hardly have been more damaging, suggesting that Blackberry owners were now ashamed of their devices. In the city where every Wall Street banker and hotshot lawyer once flaunted this symbol of their need to be connected to their email 24/7, this was hurtful stuff.

When I brought up the article, Mr Heins insisted it was poorly researched and far from the truth: "80 million users that are loyal is a different testament."

But as if to highlight the huge problem that Blackberry has in the United States, he went on: "What I see in my markets outside the US is huge growth, huge commitment to Blackberry."

But there appears to be no growth and no commitment in the US - indeed, figures show that RIM's smartphone market share keeps on falling, down another 3% between May and August this year.

Blackberry is still a very respected brand across the developing world - but it is undeniable that it has lost its cachet in the US and Europe. Turning that around and pulling the company out of its death spiral all depends on a new operating system, Blackberry 10.

Thorsten Heins, CEO of Blackberry, demonstrates the new touchscreen devices Blackberry is about to go the touchscreen route

Mr Heins gave me a demo, telling me that this was a "whole new paradigm" in mobile operating systems. Unlike the pattern set by Apple's first iPhone, where a user has to continually go in and out of a menu of apps, Blackberry 10's trick is something called Flow. This enables you to move seamlessly between a whole range of apps, heading from an email to your calendar to a social network without returning to a home screen.

The key difference, though, is that RIM has finally surrendered fully to the touchscreen experience, having insisted for years that a physical keyboard was integral to its appeal. There will still be devices with keys to tap but Mr Heins indicated that the buttonless Blackberry was the future.

Thorsten Heins with one of his company's new devices Thorsten Heins with a new-look Blackberry

The CEO and his executive team have been travelling the globe spreading the gospel of Blackberry 10 to developers - who will provide the apps on which its appeal depends - and the mobile operators who will sell it to consumers. He said there had been plenty of support.

But here's the rub - the new system won't be available until the first quarter of next year, and that may be too late. With every passing week, more consumers choose Android or Apple phones, and even more crucially, more corporations switch away from Blackberry. The management consultants Booz Allen and US Customs are amongst the recent deserters. Winning them back will be a lot harder than losing them.

But Mr Heins remained resolutely cheery. "Quality matters," he insisted when I suggested RIM had already missed the boat. "We're not just building an update of Blackberry 7, we're building a whole new mobile computing platform. Don't underestimate the dynamic that this platform is going to create in the market." And he made this bold claim: "In the US we are going to regain our market share with Blackberry 10."

With Android and Apple now grabbing most of that market, the road back looks hard - and that is if you ignore the much better-funded Windows Phone platform. I know plenty of people who are anything but ashamed to own a Blackberry - as I left my office to interview Mr Heins, a colleague told me to tell him he couldn't live without his.

But a brand that has been left behind in a fast-changing world has only a short time to turn things around.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The BB innovations which made it fashionable with the younger market have been mimicked by their competitors and made more attractive.

    eg: If you have a PAYG BB and credit it with £10, £5 is deducted for BBM.

    BBM was the contact media of choice which eclipsed texting. Now people use WhatsApp which has no charge on PAYG other than being deducted from your data allowance.

    Catch Up BB.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I friend of mine handed me his Blackberry a while ago so I could read an email. I started to use the screen to attempt to scowl down and then said to him "This is not working". "Oh, you don't do that, you use the little button" was his reply ?

    What ? I thought he was joking - but no, it turns out that's what you do. How quaint !

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Both my sons have iPhones and I just cannot see what the fuss is about. If you take the 'coolness' factor out, it's just a touchscreen phone with apps. Same as all phones today.

    That's what BB need to do, somehow inject cool into the brand while still appealing to the corporate market. A tough one I know but, it seems that at least RIM have a direction now so I hope the ship can be steadied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Blackberry's downhill trip is not surprising and is always the case when any company consider itself invincible and would not listen to customers complaints and suggestions. The competition listen to the gripes of such customers and take them on board in designing their own product and before you knew it got those customers loyally committed to them. How can Blackberry revive without listening?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @ginock, they need to wake up and smell the coffee and just accept they've made a few mistakes and learn from them, rather than just pretending everything's ok. We all know they're struggling but they seem to need to keep up with this bravado thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I have been a user of Blackberry for around 6 years now and I do like them as a brand but they are starting to slow down as a viable competitor, Thorsten says "I don't know where you got your market share figures from" but is is true, people are not wanting to develop for RIM and when people don't want to develop your company is in trouble. I can see RIM being RIP in the next two years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I have a BB 9800 which combines a touchscree, and buttons if I slide the screen back. I am coming towards the end of my 2 year contract and am looking round.

    Currently Android looks best choice, purely because of more apps, which are cheaper.

    The e-mail USP of BB no longer exists, everone does it. They need a new USP.

    This should be apps, both availability, function and cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I used to have a Blackberry, the 9700 Bold, you know what let it down? Not that it wasn't a touchscreen, I actually like the physical keyboard, it was the quality, it was poor. Poor software (kept crashing), cheap hardware and plastic-y feel compared to it's competitors. Get that right and people will return to brand blackberry, I would, they're great for communicating with and great for business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    i used to love BB but switched to the iPhone as i wanted a decent touch screen device. If BB10 is good and the new device is also up to scratch i would have no problem switching back

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Everybody has to upgrade their phone sometime (end of contract, death of device, etc). There's not a lot of difference in OS's, it's easy to switch.
    I wouldn't write any player off just yet. This 'Flow' thingy possibly sounds very good: but does it mean some of your screen contains icons all the time?
    I have a PAYG iPhone 4: when it eventually dies, I'll see what's available then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I'd definitely go BB if I didn't already have a perfectly good Galaxy S2 that meets all my needs. Maybe next upgrade?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I like to go to the pub and talk to people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I used BB for years. Currently on Android. But forecasting the demise of RIM has been a popular sport for years too. I would go with Thorsten - don't underestimate them. Being 'cool' or not, particularly in the consumer world, is very important but also very fickle. It's not cool, for example, to get lost because you've been using IOS6 maps...

    Time will tell, of course...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I've had Android, and currently own the iPad 3. I did own a BB Playbook. The playbook was magnificent, and the OS was by far the better of the three. However it had to go simply because it had no SKYPE video, and no really useful PDF reader (with search and menus). If BB had sorted these issues, as well as releasing the email app on release, the story would have been very different!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Blackberry face the same problems as Windows Phone 8 devices: most consumers are already too invested in the Android/iOS ecosystem to consider changing.

    This is their last hardware opportunity to get it right, but it would make excellent business sense to license BBM and other excellent in-house features to other developers.


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