October 2, 2013
In many ways, BlackBerry's fate parallels that of the fax machine.
Faxing enabled (and still enables) individuals to use telephone lines to transmit important text documents to people from across the globe. Facsimile machines sped communications, increased business velocity, improved return on investment, cut costs and were responsible (and still are) for the quick closure of major business transactions the world over. In retrospect though, the fax machine might be more properly viewed as a transitional technology; something that at one point in time offered much value but was eventually outmoded because it was limited in what it can do. Like the BlackBerry, fax machines amounted to a "bolt-on" to an already extant infrastructure -- in this case POTS phone lines. The fax is dependent on both phone lines and a modem (modulator-demodulator) that modulates analog signals to encode digital information and, on the other end, demodulates that signal which amounts to essentially a decoding of the information. Just as the BlackBerry is dependent on existing corporate infrastructure, the fax is dependent on telephone system infrastructure. The resulting technology is clever and works per se, but is ultimately limited because it is not an open system that is holistic in nature and/or flexible enough to deal with additional applications. Because of its propriety architecture and limited capabilities to interoperate, BlackBerry seems destined to join past IT innovation heavyweights such as Wang, DEC, Palm, AOL and many others. The siloed nature of BlackBerry's system made it non-interoperable (or at least not easily interoperable) with many commonly used enterprise applications -- including those from software heavyweights Microsoft, SAP and Oracle -- including SharePoint or Lync, to say nothing of applications developed in-house to support businesses and government agencies. To be fair, the company did embrace the Internet and offered a mobile browser that allowed BlackBerrys to function like thin clients for certain types of business applications. However, it was too little and too late by the time Apple and Android introduced larger-sized screens and multiple consumer applications (fat clients) on the device, rather than simply relying on a small-screen-sized browser. The irony is, in 2013, the majority of those accessing the Internet do so on a mobile device that in many ways came of age because of BlackBerry. BlackBerry isn't alone in having been displaced. The music, movie and television industries have all been turned upside down by the likes of Apple iTunes and Google Play, as well as others who sell content to be consumed specifically on smartphone devices. The days of the mobile device as second-class citizen are over. BlackBerry is by no means finished in government and other highly regulated industries. Many in government were pleased to hear that BlackBerry is in discussions to be acquired by a company based in a friendly country. Still, the uncertainty about BlackBerry's future ownership has caused most government agencies to proactively pursue BlackBerry "contingency plans" that mostly call for the widespread deployment of Android and iOS devices. Companies like Samsung have had the foresight to focus on a much more robustly secure instantiation of Android with its SAFE and Knox devices. (Full disclosure: The company I work for -- Fixmo -- is partly owned by Samsung.) Whatever BlackBerry's fate may be, its contribution to the culture in changing the work-life paradigm will endure. In essence, BlackBerry was the first "must-have" device that made people ubiquitously connected and available at all times. It ushered in the "anytime, anywhere" paradigm that had been foreseen for many years. The BlackBerry device brought about the modern smartphone, and it changed life and work forever -- for better or worse.
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