What happened to BlackBerry?

During the 1990s, Research in Motion, launched revolutionary products that would later morph into the first generation of smartphones. The BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard was for a time the emblem of the BlackBerry brand. However, designers stuck with the keyboard as competitors such as Apple released smartphones with touch screens. Suddenly, the Blackberry keyboard was the slower of the two options for typing messages. A lack from BlackBerry to adapt with the evolving smartphone market, a focus on Enterprise (which Apple slowly ate up) made it lose its market position, and now the company struggles to keep up.

Background

BlackBerry is a brand of smartphones and tablets designed and marketed by Canadian company BlackBerry Limited.

The company began as Research in Motion, a manufacturer of pagers and handsets which featured color displays, Wi-Fi, instant messaging, and web browsing. During the 1990s, these were revolutionary products that would later morph into the first generation of smartphones.

As a first mover, BlackBerry grew to control 50% of the smartphone market in the United States and 20% of the global market. BlackBerry phones were a status symbol and indispensable to the wealthy, and consumers became addicted to the alien feeling of always being connected.

Despite its pedigree in smartphones, BlackBerry has just 0.3% of the market today. 

So what happened?

A failure to innovate

The BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard was for a time the emblem of the BlackBerry brand. Users could send instant messages or emails relatively quickly.

However, designers stuck with the keyboard as competitors such as Apple released smartphones with touch screens. Suddenly, the Blackberry keyboard was the slower of the two options for typing messages. It also had limited functionality, with touch screens able to take and share photographs, play games, send emojis, and countless other actions. 

When BlackBerry did release a smartphone with a touchscreen, it was a hybrid version with the option to use a keyboard if desired. In reality, the keyboard was redundant and simply added extra weight and bulk to the design

Proprietary instant messaging

BlackBerry Messenger – or BBM – was an instant messaging service unique to BlackBerry smartphones. The service was a hit with teen audiences with revolutionary features such as status updates, user pinging, and chat groups.

Company executives relied on BBM to maintain smartphones sales as they began to dwindle. To that end, they banned the messaging service from being installed on other devices. 

By the time the company realized its mistake, services such as WhatsApp, Kik, and iMessage were prolific.

BlackBerry OS

The short-sightedness of the BBM decision was also apparent in BlackBerry OS.

Smartphones from Apple and Samsung became the norm because users could download a variety of third-party apps to personalize their devices. 

By contrast, BlackBerry offered relatively few apps that were difficult to use. For example, users of popular apps such as Facebook and Twitter only had half the screen with which to view content.

Enterprise focus

As consumer interest in smartphones exploded, BlackBerry remained resolute in its focus on enterprise customers.

This approach worked for a time because professionals could do meaningful work on a hand-held device with sensitive information encrypted. However, governments soon began demanding access to the information their citizens were sharing. It was rumored that BlackBerry caved into such demands from the Indian and Pakistani governments, which caused enterprise customers to become apprehensive about security elsewhere. 

In any case, an obsessive focus on the enterprise market caused the company to neglect the much more lucrative consumer market.

Fighting for survival

BlackBerry survived the emergence of Apple and Samsung in North America because its smartphones were extremely popular in the developing world. In 2014, Africa and the Middle East accounted for 40% of the company’s total revenue

Nevertheless, the hardware component of the business remained unprofitable and was also in a steady decline. A new CEO was appointed in 2013 who shifted focus to designing phones and software solutions for enterprise customers on the Android operating system.

In 2015, TCL Communication became the global licensee for the BlackBerry brand. New models were released in the following years, culminating with the BlackBerry Key2 in 2018. Since that time, no new models have been released.

Key takeaways:

  • BlackBerry is an iconic smartphone brand owned by Canadian company BlackBerry Limited. The company enjoyed first-mover status in the smartphone industry, but ultimately squandered its advantage.
  • BlackBerry was ignorant and in some ways disrespectful of competitors in the industry. It was more concerned with protecting its proprietary technology than innovating to stay relevant. 
  • Though profitable to some extent, BlackBerry’s focus on enterprise customers came at the expense of the far more lucrative consumer market. Government opposition to censoring information also eroded one of the core strengths of the company’s smartphone.

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