Last week, BlackBerry announced that John Chen, their CEO, was getting a five-year contract extension to continue his transformation of the once-smartphone-titan into a more lean, focused software company.
BlackBerry is in a fairly stable — and vastly different — place these days, but it is still hard to believe that 10 years ago, they were the talk and envy of the tech world. By now, we all (should) know the story of BlackBerry; the Canadian tech giant (formerly known as Research in Motion) whose astronomical rise was only matched by its astronomical fall.
BlackBerry wasn’t just a tech company; they were — in the opinion of most — the company that invented the modern smartphone and truly brought it to the mainstream. They were a cultural phenomenon. The first company to introduce us to smartphone addiction and slowly make us a species that spends more time looking down than straight ahead.
Fast forward to today, and Apple has assumed this role tenfold. If the BlackBerry Pearl was the scout, the iPhone was the full-blown invasion.
But with several uninspiring releases in a row, it would appear as though there are chinks in Apple’s once-untouchable armor as a smartphone leader and trailblazer. And although I’m not saying Apple is the exact same recipe for disaster that BlackBerry was, many of the same ingredients exist.
They are getting comfortable
Despite the iPhone X being a slick phone with some cool features like facial recognition, it still represents an incremental improvement over previous devices. It isn’t a product or re-imagination of the smartphone that puts Apple back in the undisputed driver’s seat. And even though it is another great (but ridiculously expensive) Apple phone, it is still just that: another phone.
Apple used to not only be a market leader, but a market creator. They haven’t been that company in a long time, which — although safe and fine for some — can be a risk. There is an inherent sense of comfort that comes with practicing an incremental improvement culture over a risk-taking moonshot one. Just look at the stock volatility differences between Apple and Tesla over the past three years. On one hand, you have the you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride roller coaster; on the other, you have the Lazy River.
The connection between the culture and narrative Elon Musk preaches, and Tesla’s determination to tangibly deliver on that narrative is the main reason why the highs are higher and the lows are lower. Conversely, Tim Cook can be as aspirational as he wants at launch events, but the numbers clearly show that he is running a responsible, yet fairly risk-averse organization.
BlackBerry was once, too, a market creator. As already mentioned, they basically invented the smartphone as we know it and was the clear leader and only real player in the space for a while. They were playing chess while everyone else was still playing checkers. And even as cell phones and early smartphones continually moved into the mainstream, BlackBerry got to the point where they didn’t feel they had to take risks because of their stranglehold on the enterprise market.
BlackBerry had the mindset that all these big global players like Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola can chip away at their consumer market share all they want, because they had a virtual monopoly over corporate clients due to their brand, security, and battery life.
But when the iPhone came, everything changed.
Even though the first iPhones were a bit glitchy and had awful battery life, that safe feeling that BlackBerry had gotten used to was replaced with that feeling of “oh shit” pretty fast.
During BlackBerry’s mach 3 surge to the top, they lost their nimble, focused nature and forward-thinking edge along the way, which put them in a position they never thought they’d find themselves in: playing catch-up. And catch-up was not a position they were built to be in. That’s what happens when you get too comfortable, and that’s where I fear Apple is approaching.
They are no longer the unanimous thought leader
There was once a time when the entire tech world — and to a certain extent the world more broadly — was on the edge of their seat before every Apple announcement.
What great new product were they going to come out with? What industry was about to be changed forever or created out of thin air?
The Mac. The iPod. The iPhone. The iPad.
These were all world-shaking products.
We have the iPhone 6, then the 6s, then the 7, and the 8. With the X — aside from facial recognition which is neat, but not groundbreaking — their biggest innovation of the past year was in their smartphone nomenclature. And if the X’s disappointing sales are saying anything, it is that people are no longer willing to pay a premium just for the Apple brand.
Taken together, Apple is still pretty cool, but I’d argue not nearly as cool as they were 10 years ago.
BlackBerry WAS the coolest. By creating a sleek, battery-efficient workhorse that could fit in the palm of one’s hand, they married up the best of what hardware and software could offer at the time. Like Apple — albeit to a lesser extent — they had disciples who couldn’t wait for what the next BlackBerry was going to be.
Oprah hailed the BlackBerry as “one of her favourite things” when she was at the peak of her power (until maybe 2020?). Barack Obama used one. It was appearing on TV and in the movies. And pretty much everyone I knew from 2007–2010 had one.
But as time went on, and the iPhone and Android devices continually hit them over the head with a sledgehammer, BlackBerry became an afterthought. A world that once hung on every word of Mike Lazaridis as if he were a prophet, or would excitedly buy anything Jim Balsillie was selling, collectively turned their back on the tech industry’s perennial underdog.
BlackBerry lost its cool factor as fast as they got it. And as they found out the hard way, once you aren’t cool, it is next to impossible to become cool again no matter what you do.
They tried the touchscreen and failed miserably.
They (kind of) eventually bought into the idea of software and apps being the future, but were too late to the party…and failed miserably again.
These failures — which were some of the final nails in the coffin for the Waterloo-based company — were symptoms of an organization that shifted its focus to keeping up with others versus setting the pace themselves.
A feature is the last major draw for staying with the platform
This argument is a bit more micro than the others, but the one that I’d say is most directly correlated to the BlackBerry story, and the one that I am currently living through with many of my friends.
I’m sure you have heard it from those you know who have flirted with the idea of switching phones: “…but I don’t want to lose iMessage.” If that is the top benefit for staying in the Apple ecosystem, then they have already lost. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) had the exact same pull on BlackBerry users — myself included — but like iMessage, its perception as a lifeline was only as strong as the number of people using it.
BlackBerry eventually came to a point where they were in quite the pickle: make BBM multi-platform so that BlackBerry users could seamlessly communicate with their iPhone and Galaxy friends, or keep it exclusive to BlackBerry. The risk with the former was that BBM, at the time, was one of the last remaining draws of sticking with a BlackBerry so losing that exclusivity potentially meant cannibalizing future device sales in the process. The even bigger risk with the latter was that BBM would be worth zilch if people kept leaving BlackBerry at the rate they were.
In hindsight, BlackBerry ultimately played it the worst way possible: making BBM multi-platform, but only after most people had already switched to Android or iPhone.
I’m not saying Apple will or should make iMessage multi-platform (or even if they can), but in the case of messaging apps, the grass is likely greener (or at least just as green) on the other side. There are a handful of multi-platform equivalents (WhatsApp, Hangouts, etc.) that are just as good as iMessage, and I’m sure newly ex-iPhonians would be 100% used to them in less than 48 hours.
Just another cool kid on the block
The iPhone is what has made Apple, Apple for the last decade. But with Google making major waves and Samsung’s big bounce-back from the Galaxy Note 7 debacle, no one can say they are the clear cut winner anymore.
The technical specs of the top smartphones have been comparable for years, but Apple’s saving grace was always their design and cool factor. The brilliant marketing campaigns; the overwhelming majority of cool celebs that had them. And that sentiment still largely rings true, but allow me to give you a real-life scenario:
Those friends that I alluded to before that are in the market for a new phone are, for the first since they made the jump to iPhone close to a decade ago (mostly from BlackBerry), considering an Android device. As recently as two years ago, this would’ve NEVER happened. When it was time for an upgrade, it was like clockwork that they’d just get the latest iPhone model.
But for the first time ever, I’m hearing many of the same arguments that we all made when moving away from BlackBerry:
It has been the same phone for years
I’m bored and want to try something new
My pictures don’t look as good as yours
The one not listed above that is a bit more exclusive to Apple is price. My friends are no longer, by default, willing to pay a hefty premium for a device that no longer carries the same superior UX or societal clout (AKA cool factor) that its predecessors did.
After reading this you may think I’m just another Apple hater, but I can assure you I am not. I have a Pixel 2XL, Lenovo for work, but a MacBook Pro and an iMac for personal use.
I like Apple products and would be ecstatic if they are able to pull off another game-changer, or at least substantially move the needle. And although they are still maybe too-hardware driven, Apple is still a full-blown institution with a diverse set of products and investments, as opposed to BlackBerry whose singular focus on smartphones always made them vulnerable to failure. In other words, the chance of a full-blown Apple breakdown is much less likely than BlackBerry’s was in the late 2000s.
But if we are to look to history for one lesson, it is that no product, person, civilization, or company — no matter how big and powerful — is safe from collapse.
If in 2008, I were to tell you that, in 10 years, BlackBerry would control 0.0% of the global smartphone market, you would’ve laughed in my face, but alas, here we are.
Today, the same can be said for the iPhone. Only time will tell if it will face a similar fate (or if smartphones as a whole will face a similar fate). But if history has taught us something else, it is the bigger they get, the harder they fall.
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