Craig Johnston: The Declining State of BlackBerry

Why BlackBerry is no longer the gold standard for IT.

Craig Johnston, Contributor

July 8, 2011

7 Min Read

I've had a BlackBerry for the longest time--not as long as some people who started with the RIM Interactive Pager 900 -- but I did jump in right after with the RIM 850.

I had a BlackBerry 857 on my hip when planes struck the World Trade Center. That terrible day, cell phone networks were saturated. The only way I could communicate was using my BlackBerry -- those emails are still available to read from that day righthere).

Because of my long history with BlackBerry devices, BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and Research In Motion (RIM), it's easy to understand why, like so many others I know, I'm angry to watch RIM sit back and let the competition take over.

We discussed this on BYTE Wireless Radio this week. To hear it, just click the player below.

It used to be nobody really used mobile data services. Then RIM released the first BlackBerry with a GSM cell phone built-in. Suddenly, mobile data services were put on the map. Looking back, it's obvious that wireless carriers should be thanking RIM for almost single-handedly increasing mobile data usage. They brought RIM a lot of revenue. But as we know now, carriers still rule the roost when it comes to RIM.

BlackBerrys were doing really well up until 2007. They're the gold standard in the enterprise for good reason. They held back Windows Mobile and Palm OS all those years by making better products and superior enterprise software to back them up.

Then it happened. Apple released the iPhone -- with its capacitive touch screen, speedy CPU, beautiful design and intuitive Graphical User Interface (GUI).

As a BlackBerry user, I was amazed and I immediately started wondering how RIM was going to take this new smartphone on.

A year later, in 2008, Apple released the next iPhone--the iPhone 3G. It came complete with an app store ecosystem around it. Before long, tens of thousands of apps were out, both free and low-cost apps.

RIM's first answer to the iPhone -- after repeating the mantra over and over that the iPhone is no threat -- was the BlackBerry Storm. It came out in November 2008.

Strangely, RIM decided to use a capacitive touch screen, but combined it with a press mechanism called SurePress for selecting things on the screen and pressing keys on the keyboard.

The screen was essentially spring-loaded. The software was buggy and the SurePress screen was not a joy to use. By all accounts, this device was a failure.

In addition, RIM just couldn't grasp the idea of an app store, where people could easily get apps onto their phones. Compounding RIM's woes, developers found it difficult to write BlackBerry apps. This led many of them to just write iPhone apps instead.

Did RIM go back to the board room and reconsider the Storm as a bad move and immediately start building an "iPhone killer?" No. Instead, it slightly re-engineered the BlackBerry Storm. It left in the SurePress screen, but tweaked its design.

In 2009, RIM released BlackBerry App World as an answer to the Apple App Store. Later that year, Apple released the third iPhone, the iPhone 3GS.

RIM answered with the Storm 2 at the end of that year. And, like the Storm 1, the Storm 2 was a failure. Still hard to use, still buggy, and still with a persistent lack of apps. In fact, the lack of apps extended to all BlackBerrys.

Ask any BlackBerry user to show you a really outstanding app. Just one. No one can. Am I wrong? Can you?

Challenge: If you know one, email me and I'll feature it on BYTE's podcast, BYTE Wireless Radio, which I host weekly with Gina Smith and Fritz Nelson.

Now, in 2010 it was all downhill. Apple released another iPhone -- the iPhone 4 with a front facing camera. By this time, Android was also a force to reckon with. Motorola and HTC were just two of the big-name hardware vendors churning out Android phones.

In fact, Verizon went on an all-out iPhone bashing campaign with its "Droid Does" commercials. Verizon apparently saw in Android what it originally hoped to see in the Storm -- an iPhone killer.

Finally, later in 2010, RIM released its first true touchscreen phone, the Torch. Still there were problems with it. RIM used a 600MHz processor instead of the 1GHz processor iPhones and Android phones use.


The resolution of the screen was low-res in comparison to the Android smartphones and the iPhone, too. The result was a phone that underperformed across the board. Its lack of apps made it even less appealing.

In 2010, Apple also released the iPad.

Last straw.

While most people whined about the fact that they had absolutely no use for a tablet, Mac fans bought it anyway and loved it.

RIM watched this and started down the path of releasing their own tablet, the PlayBook. It acquired companies that made operating systems and designed GUIs. So far, so good. Then it did something too stupid. It rushed the PlayBook to market with some major flaws.

RIM released the PlayBook in April 2011, a few months after Apple released its second generation tablet, the iPad2. At first, RIM's tablet had no email, no calendar, and no contacts apps. Well, to be precise, they were there, sort of, but unavailable for use until you paired them with a BlackBerry Smartphone using something called BlackBerry Bridge. Wonderful.

We actually had to do a How To on this in BYTE. Please!

Only with the Bridge do apps wake up and become functional, but only as interfaces to the email, calendar, and contacts apps on the BlackBerry Smartphone. Think of it like the Palm Folio. It works the same way, except it has less functionality than the Palm Folio since many of the features in the smartphone version of the app aren't yet available on the PlayBook.

And so, BYTE community, here we are.

Apple and Google rule the Smartphone space. RIM created this space and ruled it for eight years. And it's bleeding enterprise support every day.

In 2007, RIM was arrogant. That arrogance remained until 2010. That's when RIM made the panicked move to get a tablet out, way too soon. The company executed so poorly on that tablet. It has its upsides -- our executive editor Brian Burgess loves its video/still camera.

But the smartphone-buying public is bored with BlackBerrys. IT foists these things on you -- with lo-res screens and so few decent apps to keep people engaged. Even the PlayBook apps are mostly junkware.

Because of RIM's arrogance, and partly because of cost savings measures, many businesses are allowing employees to use iPhones and Android phones these days.

Before it was BlackBerry-only, but these days every smartphone does what used to be RIM's forte--push email and real-time calendar and contacts synchronization.

In a further twist of irony, Apple's iPhones and iPads offer the best security behind the BlackBerry, which has led to wide iPhone adoption in companies.

It's official. RIM has lost its once ironclad foothold in the enterprise. The gold standard is gone.

Yes, there are over 140 security policies that you can apply to BlackBerry smartphones, but most people use about six or seven, and it turns out that those are the same six or seven that iOS and Android support.

Along with companies like MobileIron, which provides mobile device management and security for any mobile platform, there is less and less need for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).

It looks grim for RIM right now and things are only getting worse. The company is clueless. I wonder if we will look back 10 years from now and reminisce about the once all-powerful RIM. Or maybe we will, as we do now with Apple, marvel at a company able to come back from disaster. Placing bets?

Based in East Windsor, NJ, Craig Johnston is a senior contributor at BYTE. He’s a widely published author of technology books, particularly in the mobile scene and a pro-podcaster. Follow him @ibanyan or email him at [email protected] . Listen to BYTE Wireless Radio, the podcast he hosts with Fritz Nelson and Gina Smith.

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