What we learned from the BlackBerry era

November 12, 2013

BlackBerry changed the world. It made wireless email a killer app that every salesperson and traveling executive absolutely needed to have to get their work done. It gave us devices with batteries that lasted a full week, connectivity that made email feel real-time even over very slow networks, and a user experience that everyone LOVED. And, for IT departments, BlackBerry established a standard of security that protected even the most sensitive information with comprehensive policy support from a central management console.

Great email and great security were the hallmarks of the BlackBerry solution and no one else in the first decade of this millennium even came close to matching them. The term “Crackberry” became so popular to describe the addictive nature of the service that it was selected as the 2006 Word-of-the-Year by Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

But the world changed.

Today, there is no shortage of pundits dissecting BlackBerry’s decline. My goal, however, is to step back and understand the broader implications of the BlackBerry story. Every CIO faces a tactical issue today of how and when to migrate from BlackBerry, but the strategy lessons and corresponding challenges are deeper and further reaching.

Lesson 1: The enterprise smartphone is dead.

Consumerization has won. If a smartphone (or tablet) is not successful in the consumer market, it will also not be successful in the enterprise market. If your mobile device vendor isn’t doing well with consumers, then that vendor will not be financially viable in the long term, because the economics of mobile device production and distribution are based on scale. Also, every smartphone in the workplace is a mixed-use device, regardless of who owns it or what IT policy has been set. Employees don’t want multiple phones, so they will use theirs for both personal and business use. That means the smartphone needs to provide a consumer-grade experience, and any “enterprise” device that does not do so will not be used for work either.

Lesson 2: The NOC does not rock.

From 2000 to 2010, the network operations center (NOC) model of wireless email was the enterprise standard. BlackBerry, then called Research in Motion, ran a NOC through which all corporate email traffic flowed. When external wireless networks were highly unreliable, the NOC delivery mechanism and proprietary BlackBerry protocol were necessary to provide push email, secure transmission, and measurable service quality. However, the NOC also created a single point of failure outside the control of the enterprise. As wireless networks improved and Microsoft’s ActiveSync became the standard protocol for push email, the value of the NOC diminished. Because of the current financial turmoil around the company, the BlackBerry NOC has arguably now become a liability for high security organizations because it is not clear what vendor or country will eventually control this critical component and the data that flows through it. Forbes even argued recently that the foreign bidding for BlackBerry may have the hidden motive of reducing customer confidence in the company.

Lesson 3: Email is not enough.

Every user loved BlackBerry email. The end-to-end BlackBerry solution, from display to keyboard to physical navigation to battery life to network connectivity, was designed to provide an optimized email experience that used minimal resources. That’s because the earliest BlackBerry devices had to live with small monochrome displays, slow paging networks, 4MB flash memory, and one AA battery. Making business email work so well with so little was a phenomenal feat. Today, email is still the killer app for mobile business, but it is not enough. Users also want a great browsing experience, lots of apps, a sophisticated screen, and intuitive touch navigation. As a result, an email experience optimized for battery life and efficient communication will always get trumped by a data experience optimized for breadth, richness, and beauty. The broader implication is that employees understand the power of apps and, as John McCarthy and Michele Pelino of Forrester Research wrote back in 2011, “Corporate app stores become the intranet of the future.”

Lesson 4: A shiny paperweight is still a paperweight.

Last week I was at a security forum and one of the participants said “My security team wants an iPhone that acts like a BlackBerry.” He was sharing a view that was broadly held in 2010 and is still the core position of many security professionals: A locked-down, highly restricted iPhone (or Android device) is the right solution for the enterprise, and compromising user experience for the sake of data security is acceptable. This methodology inevitably fails. As Vivek Kundra, the first CIO of the United States, said when he visited our MobileIron office in February 2011, “The more the CIO says ‘no,’ the less secure the organization becomes.” A primary focus on risk mitigation leads to the wrong mobile strategy. User experience is the litmus test for mobile adoption in the enterprise. Successful mobile enterprise initiatives, even in the most regulated industries, design the user experience first and then figure out innovative ways to secure data without compromising that experience. The reverse approach — designing the user experience to fit the security model — will not meet the needs of either the business or the employee.

Lesson 5: Migration is the new norm.

Five years ago, BlackBerry was the undisputed leader in enterprise mobility. Now, the original BlackBerry operating system — along with the other enterprise mobile operating systems of the day (Palm, Symbian, Windows Mobile) — has reached end-of-life. The entire landscape has shifted in a very short time … and the key lesson is that it will continue to shift. When consumers call the shots, technologies can come and go rapidly. We are all consumers and we are all trained to want the next shiny object. Mobile devices are becoming disposable because innovation cycles are rapid and new device models are launched every 6 to 12 months. Also, the choice of mobile device is very personal and viewed as a reflection of the personality of the individual. As a result, it is highly susceptible to advertising, branding, and peer choice, which can all change rapidly. The cynical way to express this is that enterprise technology is now driven by fashion. The more actionable view is that individuals have become more technically savvy and want to pick the tools of their choice even if that means those tools change frequently.

The American statistician, W. Edwards Deming, said “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” We are in the midst of a perfect storm of change in enterprise mobility. BlackBerry is the latest example and brings a wealth of lessons. Not every CIO or company will survive this storm, but all have the opportunity to build disruption into a sustaining model for how to thrive in a world of constant change.

PHOTO: Maurice Luque, media services manager for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, holds his BlackBerry in downtown San Diego February 24, 2006. REUTERS/Fred Greaves


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RIM made the same mistake as Novel. Remember them? They were the definitive networking system for a time. They saw an emerging market and grasped the first technology that came around that could minimally meet it. And then did not let go and adopt better technology once the market started maturing.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

So what did we unlearn, besides forgetting about the importance of data security? and the about the efficiencies derived from standardization?

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

The Lesson of BlackBerry: If you provide something that satisfies a need, people will buy it.

BlackBerry started out as a remote email device, similar to a pager. The first BlackBerry devices did not have cell phone capabilities. Subsequent versions added cell phone and organizer capabilities. The products sold, because people wanted to be able to access their email out of the office. The addition of the cell phone was valuable mostly because it eliminated the need to carry two devices.

Products like the Palm Pilot and other personal organizers also had the ability to provide a remote email capability, but it was not as good. With the advent of the iPhone, however, the BlackBerry saw real competition, and Android-based devices increased that competition.

Just as the rise of BlackBerry was based on filling a need, the decline of BlackBerry was based on failing to fill a need — or failing to fill it as well as other products.

It’s called supply and demand. There are many similar tales from the history of the automobile, but those tales unfolded over longer periods of time. Things happen faster in consumer electronics, but that’s not just for BlackBerry. Look at the rise and fall of AOL.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

“Ojas Rege is Vice President of Strategy for MobileIron”

Yes, I’m sure this piece is not biased at all.

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive

When will the snobs at Apple make an iPhone with a qwerty board?

Posted by willw | Report as abusive