Why BlackBerry Needs Real Innovation, and How Boston Can Help


Heads up, stodgy bankers and business road warriors: in case you haven’t noticed the blatant signs over the past 12 months or so, your trusty BlackBerry is no longer cool. Yeah, I know you think that because you recently traded in your old-school model with scroll wheel for the sleek black Tour or Bold 2, you’re on top of the latest trends. Sorry to burst your bubble, but your BlackBerry is the equivalent of a Motorola RAZR in late 2007.

I’m almost ashamed to write about it, being a closet BlackBerry user who’s anxiously awaiting the day I am eligible for an upgrade. That puts me squarely within the ultra un-hip “late majority” consumer segment. The only way I can muster the courage to use my BlackBerry in public is that the choice becomes less clear with each passing day which device should be my next. Today if I buy an iPhone 3GS (still my favorite from a pure hardware standpoint), I’m stuck with AT&T, best known for dropped calls and clogged data pipes. Not to be ignored are the host of new Android-based devices that have started coming online. So, I’m waiting to see how things shake out over the next few months, and whether a clear winner emerges. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So you’re not convinced you, too, are behind the times and need some proof. Here goes:

It’s an app world—There’s no denying we are in the beginning of a mobile and social revolution. Whether your goal is to stay plugged into pop culture or keep your business skills honed, you had better embrace this brave new world or risk being left behind. Mobile apps have become an integral part of our culture, and almost all companies—from mobile pure plays and social media upstarts to large e-tailers starting to execute a mobile strategy—build for the iPhone first. That has translated to 100,000 apps in the iTunes store and over 2 billion total downloads as of November 2009, compared to just 5,000 applications in BlackBerry App World.

The BlackBerry product lineupWired vs. wireless—If your employer doesn’t “sponsor” your BlackBerry (if you work for a small company this may also apply to you), you likely connect to a BIS server to receive e-mail and connect to the Internet. That means keeping your schedule and contacts up to date between your BlackBerry and computer requires syncing the two via BlackBerry Desktop software, which despite having reached v5.x, constantly requires removal and reinstallation. But I digress. The main point is that like the RAZR, USB is so 2007. Apple has wireless syncing and backup options for all iPhone users. And, as industry experts expected, Apple is making inroads in the enterprise market. After all, if the necessary security measures are in place, IT managers will simply strive to meet the needs and wants of their customers (i.e. company employees).

Brand perception—In late December, the BlackBerry e-mail network suffered two outages over a two-week period. RIM’s service disruption was an aberration, but users were outraged and analysts criticized the company for not having adequate server backup measures. Following the outages, BlackBerry’s Buzz score fell to +28 (positive brand perception scores range from +1 to +100), a number I’d classify as mildly positive. Contrast RIM’s normally reliable service with that of the iPhone; especially in urban areas people are plagued with dropped calls and poor bandwidth on a daily basis. You could argue AT&T’s network, and not the iPhone itself, is largely to blame. But at the end of the day, you’d expect people to associate their frustrating experiences with all brands. That is not what happened. In 2009, iPhone gained the top spot on Vitrue’s Top Social Brands list and Apple moved up 4 notches to #20 on Interbrand’s Best Global Brands list.

The Web is our lifeline—Can you imagine life without Google? Americans have become dependent on the Internet, with 253 million of us (74 percent) using it, 48 percent more than one hour per day. As a nation constantly on the go, it’s only natural mobile Web browsing eventually would take hold. What we lacked until the late 2000s was a mobile experience resembling that on the PC. Together with prevalent 3G access, iPhone’s clean, user friendly interface is largely credited with accelerating adoption of mobile Web browsing. Early last year, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported 56 percent of American adults had accessed the Internet wirelessly, and this number has surely increased since. Today, despite a global recession, smartphone shipments are projected to grow by 18 percent in 2010, totaling 235 million units worldwide. Virtually all of these phones have GPS, pegging your whereabouts and enabling a whole new class of valuable content and services, appropriately labeled location-based services (LBS). With approximately 50 percent of US smartphone traffic, iPhone is uniquely poised to capture the lion’s share of the benefit. Android is the only other operating system gaining share over the preceding 6 month period. BlackBerry is among the losers, dropping 11 percent.

Let the market be our guide—You bankers still not buying it? Well, let me speak in a language you understand. While BlackBerry’s stock (NASDAQ: RIMM) is up 80 percent since the Nasdaq market low in early March 2009, Apple’s stock (NASDAQ: AAPL) is up 130 percent during the same period. Granted, Apple also makes and sells Macs, not just smartphones. But as the mobile device market is growing faster than the PC market, you might expect that would have had a dilutionary effect, curbing otherwise greater growth in Apple’s share price.

Synergies for Apple loyalists—Like all Apple software, the iPhone platform is proprietary, leaving the door open for Google to enter the market and gain share with open source Android. That said, there are many benefits, ranging from software compatibility to a seamless user experience, for Mac users choosing the iPhone.

The Perfect Storm

By now, hopefully I have most of you on board, but what does it all mean? How bad is it for RIM? Well, on paper today the picture doesn’t look bad. BlackBerry is in the lead at 42 percent of the US smartphone market with Apple climbing to 25 percent. But the future holds a very different picture. In Q409, when BlackBerry had 13 smartphone models for sale, iPhone and Android were the only two operating systems that gained market share. IDC predicts that by 2013 Android will displace RIM as the number two operating system globally, shipping an estimated 68 million units. With such scale, Android will join Apple in making serious inroads into RIM’s base of enterprise customers. If the long-rumored agreement between Apple and Verizon Wireless were ever to come about, the result would be a crushing blow to BlackBerry.

But RIM still has time to reposition itself. How?

Focus, Focus, Focus

I’ll start with what I believe is a fundamental flaw in RIM’s strategy. The company treats the market as very fragmented and hence develops multiple devices (Pearl, Pearl Flip, Bold, Tour, Curve) to cover the entire landscape. For all intents and purposes, Apple has a single phone with options for additional memory, a faster processor, etc. While RIM prices its higher end phones for the corporate jetsetter, Apple makes its one phone affordable for the masses. BlackBerry would do better to save R&D costs and channel its resources toward fewer phones while obsessing over user experience. Being a purely mobile company without the distractions of other business lines has its advantages.

Don’t Be a Copycat

While BlackBerry has much to learn from Apple in terms of focus, I’ve never been a fan of mimicking your most successful competitor’s design and feature set. This holds especially true against a formidable brand like Apple, which will trump you in aesthetic and marketing savvy nine times out of 10. Sure, there is room for some manufacturers (a la Samsung Mythic and Palm Pre) to siphon off price sensitive market segments. But RIM is in a different category—it’s a smartphone industry pioneer capable of doing far more than developing cheap iPhone imitations like the Blackberry 9500 (aka the Storm).

Now in its second generation, the Storm was an unsuccessful attempt to steal Apple evangelists and wannabes. Despite a $100 million marketing effort and availability on a far superior network, the buggy Storm shipped about half of iPhone 3G‘s 2.4 million units in the first three months post-launch. The second generation Storm (aka Storm 2) launch in Q409 was a non-event, because Verizon (and partner Motorola) placed its $100 million bet on The Droid, the first Android 2.0 -based phone, which debuted around the same time. I don’t have Storm 2 shipment figures handy, but my best guess is they are far less impressive than the original Storm. After its failed attempt and given the huge lead Apple has garnered, BlackBerry should leave the touchscreen to others.

Go Back to Your Roots

Shifting gears from what not to do, BlackBerry should return to its core strengths, developing devices that boost productivity, while considering changes in the market and technology. Favoring BlackBerry, which is perhaps best known for having a QWERTY keyword front and center on almost all devices, is the fact that entering text on a mobile device is only increasing in importance. Uses have expanded beyond dialing their phones and typing e-mails to include SMS, Web searches, social networking profile updates, completing Web forms, and more. The problem for BlackBerry arises when its function-centric devices compromise the user experience for other emerging consumer needs like multimedia entertainment and mobile gaming, which are forecast to yield $77 billion in combined revenues by 2012. Devices like the Palm Pre and Motorola Droid seemed to have this solved for now, albeit with a slightly thicker form factor. Now you can have the best of both worlds, a viewable screen that extends the length of the device and an accessible QWERTY keyboard hidden underneath.

How Boston Can Help

So is the solution as simple as that? Not quite. First, this is a short-term “patch.” Second, BlackBerry has plenty of catch up to do in its user interface. In the medium to longer term, these efforts will fall far short in a head-to-head battle with Apple + Google. No, BlackBerry needs iPhonesque disruption. Where better to look than a city quickly becoming a mecca for mobile?

Boston is home to two best-of-breed speech recognition technology companies, Nuance Communications (NASDAQ: NUAN), a publicly traded company whose market cap is greater than $4 billion and whose roots date back to 1992, and Vlingo Corporation, a Cambridge-based startup backed by Yahoo!, AT&T, Charles River Ventures and Sigma Partners, among others. Until now, the term “hands-free” was really a misnomer; you couldn’t accomplish much without your device in hand. But with advances in both text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology, these companies have developed commercially viable services that allow you to speak commands to your mobile device, have them spoken back to you for validation, and in some cases, receive responses and updates by voice.

Currently Nuance offers Dragon Dictation & Search for iPhone, but the company will undoubtedly come out with Android and BlackBerry apps before long. Vlingo is already available for BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia S60 and Windows Mobile devices, with specific functionality varying by platform. The most feature-rich app is Vlingo Plus for BlackBerry, which allows customers to use voice for any task where they’d normally have to type. Both Dragon and Vlingo are shockingly accurate in deciphering speech even with a moderate level of background or ambient noise. Even as third-party apps, there’s a whole lot of value to the user. Now imagine if BlackBerry deeply integrated the technology into its operating system and invested in its continued advancement.

Will physical and/or virtual keyboards disappear any time soon? Not likely. But in my view the Nuance and Vlingo apps are the types of productivity applications that could serve as catalysts for BlackBerry to re-emerge as an innovator, charting its own path to success.

Jonathan Michaeli is former vice president of marketing for Boston-area startups Gather.com and Panraven and Israel-based WorldMate. Follow @

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17 responses to “Why BlackBerry Needs Real Innovation, and How Boston Can Help”

  1. Roger says:

    What a load of baloney!
    Blackberry does the important things (the things I spend 90% of my time doing on a phone) better than any other phone on the market and that is true for the rest of the early majority (and late majority). Plus, there are over 5,000 apps on Blackberry App World and that is more than enough, especially since the most important ones (ie. the ones I tend to use every day) run better on Blackberry. Most of the apps for iphone are low quality junk. It’s like a flea market. Who cares if it has more junk to offer. I want quality, not junk.

  2. Roger,

    Thank you for your reply and expressing your opinion.

    You may find it useful to look at the results of this LinkedIn poll, where the question is “If you had to pick one: iPhone or BlackBerry?” –


  3. I have been an avid Blackberry fanatic for a decade. When given the opportunity to get an iPod touch, I decided to do it just to prove to my smug iPhone friends that their loyalty was misplaced.

    I was wrong, they were right. After a couple of months, I can’t wait for the iPhone to become available on my carrier. Yeah, typing speed on the iPod Touch is slower than the Blackberry. But the device more than makes up for it in every other way. Just consider the saved sync time—it syncs effortlessly and wirelessly with my Mac contacts and calendar. The Blackberry, using “Missing Sync” or the RIM-supplied Blackberry Desktop takes over an hour to sync my 3,000-person contact book, and often crashes 45 minutes into the sync.

    Snapiness of the device itself is another factor. Yeah, the iPod touch doesn’t multitask. That keeps it responsive enough that when I need its main features, they’re always instantaneously on and available. With my Blackberry Curve 8900, half the time I want to make a call, I get the “wait while I think” spinning ball. When I check the open apps, there are all kinds of things open all the time that I don’t use (the Browser and Blackberry messenger seem to be impossible to shut down), and the basic functions–phone, contacts, and calendar–are sometimes so sluggish that I can pull out my iPod touch and do the lookup before the Blackberry responds.

    Perhaps the Blackberry app store is comparable, but I’ve been able to find an iPod touch app for almost anything I need (ear training, note taking, fitness, games), most of which are inexpensive and well-written.

    Last but not least is the interface. Believe it or not, elegance and beauty make a difference to some people. The iPod Touch wins hands down. It’s a nicer aesthetic experience.

    No one of these things would be enough to get me to switch, but faster, cleaner syncing, snappier response, and a beautiful interface together are enough that the overall iPhone experience is far better for me than Blackberry.

    Interestingly, I’m on the RIM marketing survey mailing list. They send survey after survey and seem to ask about everything except the things that I care about. I get the impression that they’re deeply clueless.

  4. Anon says:

    I disagree with your views. 1) Everyone should be syncing wireless, regardless of BIS or BES. BES has it’s own contact/cal sync as you know, however if you’re on BIS you should be using Google Sync (as in app pre-5.0 or built in with BIS 3.0). 2) You say Blackberry should focus it’s efforts on what it does best, yet you say it should focus it’s efforts on what it does best, which is the essentials of a smart phone (SMS, email, calls etc) yet it should incorporate more usability factors? There is a level of usability vs power that everyone prefers, and people that have chosen Blackberry have gone for the power. It’s like comparing C vs VB/AppleScript(obv incomparable, but bare with me) One is very un-friendly and hard to pick up, and the other is simple and easy to use, however one gives the user near-unlimited amounts of power and the other limits you to what it’s system can do. I’m not saying that the iPhone/Android is limited to it’s applications, I’m just saying that I don’t want it’s pretty loading screens. I don’t want to sit through 4 taps and 3 warpy screen transactions just to turn my wireless off. I don’t want to have 5 actions between viewing different inboxes. I just want my phone to do what I want quickly and effectively, and for that, I would easily sacrifice the millions on R&D to make my phone “look prettier” but make me pull my hair out waiting for it to do what I want it to do.

  5. Wow. Very comprehensive article.

    The people in the comments above are entitled to disagree, but I think you really provided the important data for the whole market, and you’re gonna save me time, which is my concern.


  6. Stever – Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. It seems we see eye-to-eye in most areas.

    Anon – I appreciate your feedback. On the sync issue, in my view, it shouldn’t take a 3rd party app to make wireless sync possible. I don’t see how BlackBerry is more powerful, aside from multitask. In my experience, iPhone’s elegant and user friendly interface makes most tasks easy and enjoyable. The market has spoken, and cool and slick matters, unless BlackBerry aspires to be a niche player.

    Patrick – Thanks for your kind words.

  7. Chris says:

    Interesting observations, indeed. Thanks for this post.

    We’re proud to be a Boston company developing on the BlackBerry platform. SoftArtisans builds SilverDust, for secure BlackBerry connectivity to SharePoint. http://silverdust.softartisans.com

    Also, another Boston BlackBerry initiative is the New England BlackBerry Developers Group. Our first meeting is 3/16 and Mike Kirkup, Director of Developer Relations for RIM will be joining us as a guest speaker. We’re going to have regular meetings to discuss various BlackBerry-related topics. More info here: http://www.meetup.com/New-England-BlackBerry-Developers/

  8. Hey Jon,
    Great Article! Recently my husband got upgraded to a new Blackberry – and turned to me to ask why I get to have the ‘real’ Internet on my iPhone and he’s still stuck with the AOL version. I’m with you!

  9. Chris – Thank you for the heads up on the mobile developer event.

    Sandra – Great example. BlackBerry still has the leading share of the US smartphone market, because it’s been around the longest, has penetrated enterprise very well, and makes a dozen devices to cover the spectrum. As a result, they don’t think they have a problem. They need to listen to consumers better!

  10. Disappointed BB user says:

    RIM does not provide with OS updates to previous models leaving users with buggy phones that not possible to upgrade unless buy a new headset
    This cause people to leave BB world with the time

  11. Great article Jon. Agreed on all fronts, and there will likely be a mass exodus with Blackberry users switching to iPhone once the iPhone is available on Verizon! I’ll be first in line, since the phone/network is still my #1 requirement. Apple and Verizon – I hope you’re listening!

  12. I liked how you tied in Boston in this post. I am a Blackberry user myself and while I see the plenty of limitations in the RIM software, I also see potential. Blackberry needs to be more compatible with different operating systems and that means they need to sync wirelessly (without a third party app). Blackberry customers are business people and making their lives easier should be RIM’s number on focus. Improvements on email and calendar syncing are crucial.

    The thing I am fascinated with the most is the popularity RIM has among college students. Who would have thought? Their messaging platform, BBM is a huge draw for students looking to connect instantly with their friends. From what I’ve heard most business professionals don’t use this feature. RIM might want to take advantage of this market and cater to the younger generation.

  13. Alison – I agree. In my view, service reliability is #1 and phone is #2. I only use AT&T, because I traveled abroad extensively with my last employer. Turns out, when I was out of the country, I used a different phone with a local SIM, so it wouldn’t have mattered if my US device was on Verizon’s CDMA network.

    Jennie – Good point. I have heard from others that BBM is a highly used feature among Gen Y’ers.

  14. I am a BlackBerry Bold user. I run a small boutique marketing services company and the executives all use BB’s. Our creative types all use iPhones. I’ve tried them, but find myself struggling with the lack of a real keypad on the iPhone. Our shop develops apps for both platforms and the real issue with the BB is all the !$@#!$ form factors and operating systems. RIM has a real challenge in trying to support all the form factors and old OS’s out there.

    Regarding wireless syncing… We have BES (love it) and now it’s free! RIM has clearly failed to communicate this effectively. See http://na.blackberry.com/eng/services/business/server/express/?CPID=OTC-RFBPSE

    Gotta love the BB vs. iPhone holy war!

  15. Thank you Marty. Great point about needing to support the various screen resolutions. This was also a real challenge for WorldMate, my last employer.

    I think RIM making BES available for free is a warning sign Apple is and will continue to make serious inroads in enterprise. Unfortunately, BES still isn’t a practical solution for individuals.