What If BlackBerry Had Fought Back Smarter Against the iPhone?

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Right now, the BlackBerry KeyONE is selling out in most markets. It has been doing so well they have come up with a special Black Edition, sadly after I got my own KeyONE (because I now want it), and customers apparently are split 50-50 between consumers and business buyers.

I honestly don’t think BlackBerry should have lost to Apple, largely because the iPhone – and similar touchscreen-based designs that now, thanks to iPhone clones, dominate the market – because the design is inherently unsafe.

But I think folks, based on these sales results, are coming back to the idea that if you text, do email, or use any instant messaging heavily, having a keyboard isn’t only faster, it is far safer than using a touchscreen phone.

This brings up the thought that BlackBerry could have won this fight. The reason they didn’t is they didn’t take the threat seriously enough early enough, and they responded by copying Apple, not fighting the trend.

Let’s talk about how BlackBerry could have better defended their turf.  (Granted they are mostly a security and software company now doing reasonably well but they nearly owned the professional smartphone market at one time).

How They Lost

When the iPhone was first shown it not only didn’t have any apps, they were thinking of having apps web-hosted rather than resident on the device. When it shipped, it was basically an iPod Touch with a crappy phone feature.   Companies like BlackBerry looked at the thing and saw a huge mistake, forgetting that — unlike them — Apple was a marketing powerhouse and it had a huge war chest due to iPod success.   They should have thought, “Gee, Apple took out Sony on MP3 players and Sony was massively dominant with the Walkman. Maybe we should be concerned about that marketing part.”

So instead of pointing out the faults in the iPhone and comparing those faults to what the others did well they just bad mouthed the device personally and generically.   As expected, Apple’s installed base bought every iPhone that Apple made, Apple massively improved the product, and then as BlackBerry was looking at plummeting market share, instead of pointing out with Apple-like marketing why folks should prefer their products and working to get the developers that Apple had captured, they tried to create iPhone clones basically handing the market to Apple.

Firms like BlackBerry could create a better BlackBerry that was competitive but even imagining they could create a better iPhone was a fool’s errand because Apple owned what an iPhone was, and simply by not being an iPhone they were screwed.

How They Could Have Won

I think phones like the KEYone particularly showcase how they could have won.  First, Apple’s big lever was the phone as something that wasn’t just for work but was also fun.  They needed the equivalent of iTunes and fun applications available on the device so they could still leverage their business roots, but address the need that was driving iPhone sales.   Apple couldn’t touch what BlackBerry does well — secure and safe communications — so they just had to close the entertainment gap so that their phone was good enough.

In addition, they needed to aggressively market that the iPhone, with a screen keyboard, was unsafe because you can’t blind type.   Something more like this campaign Microsoft is running against Apple, sadly they did try this with their Nokia phones but they waited too late and they also had an iPhone-like product by then (they also didn’t run it long enough).   (You must admit Microsoft has done some funny campaigns over the years, sadly they never seem to run them long enough).  Samsung ran a well-funded campaign against the iPhone, but once again, they had a similar product and while they took share, they couldn’t sustain the cost.

But you must do this before folks who aren’t already Apple fans lock down on an opinion, because once they decide Apple is better getting them to change their minds is both expensive and far more difficult.

Wrapping Up

I think the success of the KEYone, which is the phone I carry, showcases that had BlackBerry recognized the threat early and responded broadly, both with product and marketing, they could have held much more of their market and while the iPhone would have still been successful (Apple loyalists would have assured that), it wouldn’t have put BlackBerry in distress.  In addition, done right, largely because screen phones are unsafe, they could have likely gotten them banned in some industries where attention is critical.  The KEYone, which runs Android, has a full Android and Blackberry suite of products allowing you to have a device that is fun, secure, and far safer than any touchscreen phone including an iPhone.  I think that, plus the right marketing campaign, would have made the difference.

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About Author

As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

5 Comments

  1. I was there at BlackBerry at the time. Believe me, there were hundreds of us that knew what to do to help BlackBerry compete with the iPhone threat, yet senior management didn’t get it. It’s true that they didn’t have the apps, but I wouldn’t characterize their (our) efforts as trying to create an iPhone clone (BB10 was superior to iOS in many, many ways). The problem was that we didn’t market our advantages. Remember the super bowl add? It was 30 seconds of special effects and not a single second spent on features that made you want to own it.

    And, remember the Alicia Keys sponsorship? Not a bad idea, but she wasn’t a true fan. It was all fake. That’s why it blew up when she was caught using her iPhone shortly thereafter. I, on the other hand, had presented BlackBerry’s CMO with the opportunity of using a real BB fan [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_City_(duo) ] and writer/producer of tier one music from Miley Cyrus (“We Can’t Stop”), Nicki Minaj (“Only”) and Rihanna (“Pour It Up”), but BlackBerry Marketing told me to stick with developer evangelism, they had marketing under control. Rock City was actually using BlackBerry devices in their recording sessions and I had video of it. Unbelieveable.

    Lastly, though there was supposed to be training for all the carriers so they knew how to use the devices, I visited 10 stores the day BB10 first released and only 1 sales rep knew what the Hub (the single most powerful differentiating feature) was and how to demo it. Not to mention there was no incentives to the sales teams for selling BBs. Contrast that to Apple and Samsung’s SPIFs for devices sales, and BB never had a chance.

    –Larry

  2. Bagoes Castle Age on

    Sad but true, BB lost because marketing inept. Later smart-phone dominated by slab which made me frustrated because their inaccuracy.

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