BlackBerry – a company once famed for essentially creating the smartphone category has hit hard times in recent years. So what happened to pull this Canadian tech giant from the top to where it is today?
First, a bit of history. BlackBerry, which was originally named Research in Motion or RIM, is an Ontario-based company once headed up by co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie.
It rose to power by building intelligent, two-way pagers, that later gave users access to email on the go, letting them send and receive anytime, anywhere. In 2015 that seems as commonplace as free WiFi at your local coffee shop, but in 1996 – RIM was pushing boundaries nobody else had even come close to.
Sure enough RIM’s ground-breaking technologies became the must-have gadgets for governments, celebrities and of course, big business, driving investment to the company and laying the groundwork for the future of mobile communication beyond the humble phone call.
By 1999, Lazaridis wanted to instigate the next major evolution in his company’s products and with a little help from brand gurus Lexicon, responsible for names like Pentium and Apple’s PowerBook line, the BlackBerry brand was born.
Over the next few years, BlackBerrys became the devices of choice for millions as they were reliable, operated on a secure network, could be managed en-masse by a business’s IT department and offered excellent battery life.
They were the definition of a smartphone in the early noughties and on the whole things looked good for the company, at least until Apple got involved that is
January 2007 saw the unveiling of the first-generation iPhone and it hit the market in late June that same year.
It was in many ways the anti-BlackBerry – a touchscreen in place of the iconic physical keyboard/trackball combo, a fun, colourful interface aimed at consumers rather than business users and comparatively meagre battery life of around five hours.
At the time RIM brushed it off as an oddity that users couldn’t possibly get behind when compared to BlackBerry’s business behemoth, but sure enough, Apple hadn’t just released a phone – it’d changed the game, the way smartphone manufacturers and carriers interacted, how deals were done and what a smartphone could look and feel like to use.
Once the iPhone started gaining traction, BlackBerry joined forces with Verizon in the US to push a new device catering to consumers newfound love of the touchscreen. They came up with the Storm (originally a Vodafone exclusive for us Brits) – it was an unreliable mess and as a result a sales flop, with the first million devices needing to be replaced entirely at RIM’s expense.
Following the expiration of AT&T’s exclusivity over the iPhone in 2010 (an O2 exclusive at launch in the UK), they too approached RIM for a new star device, but much like the Storm, the resultant Torch was a lacklustre pile of under-developed hardware and software that couldn’t compete with the iPhone, which now had a tight hold on the mobile market thanks to improved hardware and a blossoming app ecosystem.
By 2013 Lazaridis and Balsillie had stepped down as co-CEOs and Thorsten Heins was now at the helm, riding out a downhill slide of record losses and job cuts in the thousands.
The company rebranded to what we now call BlackBerry, launched a new operating system in BB10, based on the QNX platform and kicked off the launch with two new handsets. An all-touch device in the Z10 and a more familiar offering in the QWERTY-laden Q10, but despite all of this, the company was still travelling in the wrong direction.
Skip forward to 2015 and we’re looking at a company whose shares now clock in at under $8 each, at their pre-iPhone height they were around $230 a share.
To be clear, a downfall doesn’t mean down and out, but BlackBerry should have dropped hardware and become a services company years ago.
The future is uncertain and the story of BlackBerry thus far serves as a warning to every other big brand out there that all it takes is one disruptive product or service to set you into a downward spin that’s almost impossible to escape from.