Smart lessons from “stupid” cellphone

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Bluescan sv.wiki
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Bluescan sv.wiki

A recent cover from Bloomberg Businessweek depicted some relics from the past with a tongue-in-cheek approach. The cover showed a “fearsome weapon” dating back to 2000 BC, which was a stone arrow from the Americas. Another depicted a sun-shaped disc, dating back to 3600 BC, from the Nile Delta. In the right bottom corner of the cover was a belt-fixed messaging tool, dated 2010 A.D., from Canada.

The cover line for this edition of the business magazine was “How Blackberry became a relic”. The article covered Blackberry’s fall from once being a breakthrough technology device that allowed workers to send and receive emails while away from the office to its demise as it lost ground to more technologically advanced competitors. The magazine spoke to many present and former Blackberry employees, vendors and associates about what went wrong at the company.

The Blackberry story has some good lessons for anyone developing new products and keeping up to date with technology. As usual, it is a story about rapid success and then a failure on the part of the company to play catch up with advancements in technology and changing customer preferences. It’s also a story about ignoring or just being dismissive of competitors and the market.

I hardly want to kick a dying donkey in the teeth so I’ll restrict my comments to some of the major lessons that we can learn from the Blackberry collapse.

A former employee recalls how at a town hall meeting he asked a question about research and development and was shot down with “Oh, research is for people who don’t want to actually work anymore.” It was a slap in the face for the employee and just goes to show the typical arrogance when demand is exploding but consumer tastes are changing.

When the first iPhones hit stores in June 2007 the founders instead of realising the potential threat to BlackBerry went public and belittled Apples’s device by criticising it short battery life and weaker security.

There was little attempt to improve the customer experience with the browser. Even today the browser is so hopelessly outdated and limited. Kevin Michaluk, founder of CrackBerry.com, a news site, says that when the Bold 9000 came out he ripped it apart in an article because the browser was “completely unusable”. “BlackBerry launched that Web browser without it really working. That bold 9000 browser was one of the cracks in the egg,” Michaluk told Bloomberg Businessweek.

When the Z10 came out with out a trackpad and the back button even for me I could see that Blackberry was clutching at straws. Their offer was so far behind their competitors that I began to think there was something horribly wrong. As Michaluk says: “… They killed the trackpad. They killed the back button, so all your muscle memory of how things work goes out the door.”

The list of failures just continues: sub-optimal execution, missed delivery dates, buggy products and weak marketing. One fascinating little anecdote was how Justin Bieber wanted to represent BlackBerry. The idea was pitched to BlackBerry marketing and they “They basically threw us out of the room.” They said “this kid is a fad” and that he would not last. The senior business development manager said in the meeting: “This kid might outlive RIM.” He recalls that everyone laughed.

There you have it. A brief insight into what can go wrong with products in the hyper-competitive consumer technology market. Yet time and again you see egos at work, ignoring the reality of the marketplace and arrogance.

I think my son summed up the attitude towards Blackberry best for me when I gave him my Blackberry when my contract had expired. He let it fall from his motorcycle and and a car road over it, smashing the device into smithereens. I was upset when I found out but he was not perturbed at all. He had no interest in the Blackberry and really wanted an iPhone, which he eventually bought himself in London. Now I can chat to him over Skype something which you’ve never been able to do over the Blackberry.

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