BlackBerry means business, and that's the problem

Whatever happened to the BlackBerry? The once-dominant smart mobile device seems headed for oblivion. While researching my recent feature on mobile apps for engineers, I found no interest in developing such apps for the BlackBerry platform. The few comments I heard expressed relief that no one had begun an effort to design BlackBerry apps back when the device is popular.

BlackBerry maker RIM has, of course, suffered well-publicized service problems, as well as a management shakeup. But the product's popularity began fading much earlier.

Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki offers a hypothesis on why BlackBerry has lost so much market share: “The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn’t. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments.”

He adds that BlackBerry gave IT managers what they want most—a reliable, secure closed system that ordinary users couldn't tinker with.

Surowiecki notes that targeting businesses with new technology is a good strategy. The telegraph, telephone, and typewriter all targeted businesses first. The problem for RIM, he says, is that BlackBerry reached the height of its popularity as we were entering “the age of what's inelegantly called the consumerization of IT, or simply Bring Your Own Device.”

He adds, “Consumerization has been disastrous for RIM, because the company has seemed clueless about what consumers want.” And consumerization, he says, is unlikely to go away as the barrier between work and home erodes.

A recent study from NPD In-Stat tracks the entry of mobile devices—specifically tablets—into the workplace: “The tablet has been the hottest device in the consumer market since Apple’s 2010 iPad launch. Yet over the past year, tablet use has begun to crossover from the consumer world into the workplace. New NPD In-Stat research confirms that the most common business uses of tablets are email/calendar management, note taking, and presentations, with 77% reporting email as a common workplace use.”

The In-Stat research supports Surowiecki's “Bring Your Own Device” trend: In-Stat found that only 22% of mobile-device users surveyed had their tablets paid for by their companies. And friction with IT persists: less than half of respondents felt they could connect with the corporate network.

It will be interesting to see how mobile devices ultimately fit within the business environment, and if there is an opportunity for BlackBerry to bounce back. Original PC deployments in business were relatively open, but IT departments quickly asserted control of what could and couldn't be loaded. The BYOD model might be so economically compelling for businesses that their IT departments will have to keep their hands off.

Disclaimer: until mid January, my wife worked for a company that provides outsourced IT services to companies that want to deploy to their workers mobile devices based on open platforms including iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. She now works for a company that makes development tools for mobile apps.

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