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 55.

    The problem with BB is the BIS/BES stuff. Android/iOS work great with just plain Internet connectivity. BB works iffy with it's BIS backend. eg, no 'true' IMAP support, which bizarrely means that the 'email specialist' BB is worse than an Android/iOS device.

    The problem is that the USP (BIS) is now a hindrance rather than a help to most people, so they have to make a massive change to fix that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    BlackBerry....oh dear.

    It used to have claim to high end business users, with high prices and expensive contracts.

    Today, it's main market in the UK is hosting BB messaging, on budget handsets and pay as you go contracts.

    BlackBerry has nothing to counter the Android/Apple combo. Same for Nokia.... Market leaders to also rans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Lazy journalism. BlackBerry will release a query keyboard version a matter of days after the touchcreen, to cater for those who prefer this. Also some of the 'fanboy' comments here are nothing short of tiresome. Having more choice of operating systems and devices is a good thing. Also the phrase 'blackberry is dead' is a strange one considering the number of worldwide users.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Been using blackberrys for years, cant wait for bb10.
    I'm hoping they will release another slider like the torch 9800/9810, so I'll be holding out for a while before i upgrade yet.
    Some people talk about lack of apps, BB10 will be able to use android apps too (same as the playbook now) so it not going to be problem.
    Its true what they say: "Once you go black(berry), you never go back!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    "I won't be upgrading to a touchscreen BB. I bought mine for the proper keyboard, not for it's "coolness"."

    Not all new BB10 devices will be touch-only:

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Been a Blackberry user for a couple of years and I'm very happy with my Torch 9860; it does everything I want and does it the well. Not being an app freak, the lack of them doesn't bother me. I will consider Android if the next generation BB, does not come up to scratch. I'm due to upgrade in Mar next year, so will hopefully coincide with the new BB launch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Stuff I want from BB:

    Same Apps as iOS/Android
    Interoperability between platforms, not BB only apps.
    Longer battery life
    PDF reader as standard
    Do not abandon hard buttons

    ...anyone agree/want to add?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    What killed Blackberry was the breathtaking drop in quality and durability of their devices a few years back. They were horribly fragile, unreliable, prone to failure in normal use and unfit for task.. On drop of rain on the key pad and a few days after they would fail.. One harder than normal press on the unprotected screen and a day later it would fail. Hopeless :-(

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Having used a BlackBerry Storm II for over 2 years, I love it, after a firmware update (a couple of months into my contract) the battery pull problem of many BBs disappeared. Full touch screen, no keys, WiFi-n. I continually fight with my teenages sons who both have iPhones (4 and 5). Looking forward to seeing what BlackBerry 10 will do for me, been a while but hopefully will be worth the wait.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I still expect Windows phones and surface to end up with all the business users in the not too distant future. What does the business world use for e-mail ? Outlook. Editing documents? Word. Presentations? PowerPoint. That is a massive plus to any Microsoft business product. Neither iOS or Android is suited to business use, and that's one heck of a market segment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    44. EnigmatiSC

    When you understand the underpinnings of BB10 you realise that they are on the right path. I for one am holding out for this - it is a game changer.
    Its a phone mate, not a tele-porter!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    When you understand the underpinnings of BB10 you realise that they are on the right path. I for one am holding out for this - it is a game changer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    BB died a LONG time ago. Corporations have been moving away from it for years because of the back-end infrastructure & administration required to run the thing. Consumer markets may be important but that space is very crowded and I see very little in the BB 10 OS to convince me that they have a USP. Notifications, recent apps and open apps are all available on other OS's, all of them now actually

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Actually like BB and having the mix of touch screen and physical keyboard on my current device is a key benefit - shame they are thinking of going purely touchscreen. Might choose to go Android if that's the case. RIM should be a leader and not a follower, shame!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    If BBM is kept in tact as a service I think they will keep the youth market that they don't market too. How much that is worth is unclear the business sector wants a business phone meeting this demand could keep Blackberry afloat with the right hardware, apps & price.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Having used a BB phone and PlayBook for the last 2 months, I have been very impressed by the build quality. If the touch experience on the PlayBook can be replicated on the BB 10 OS phone with support for email attachments (rubbish on the current phones), as well as, MUCH better app support (eg. a native podcast app and major players such as Skype thrown in), then I will get one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Hugely competitive at the moment, I was at was at the pub with a group of friends this week, and where-as 5 years ago almost everyone had a BB, now it was split between iPhone, Nokia, Samsung and BB. With BB looking very old and dated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Only use a blackberry because it's the only option available if I want a work funded contract. I find it clunky and hard to use. Interestingly Blackberry is popular with my teenage daughter and her peers (mainly due to bbm).But even she is getting annoyed - frequent crashes and she finds the UI unintuitive compared with Iphone. Good luck with the new phones, but too little to late I fear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    How many industries have a duo-poly?

    If you look back at the history of the mobile industry, you'll see it's a constantly changing landscape - Motorola, Nokia.

    There's also a lack of innovation at present with everything looking the same.

    Plenty of room for another one or two innovative players to come to market and shake it up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I am by no means some blind apple loving fanboy but I just dont like Blackberrys, m partner has one and loves it but I think thats because of the keypad and non touch screens, by changing the design of the new phone to the same as all others RIM are removing there niche and we only fail


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