Disclaimer: I've gone on record as being a CrackBerry addict, going back to a column I wrote for Inc. in 2005 titled "A Message to My BlackBerry." Therein I confessed:
When someone turns away to locate some papers or to address someone else, I take you in my hand as if the entire world hinges on whatever few words you might have for me. I sometimes wonder if you might even be changing the very way I think -- suppressing my ability to reflect, to ponder, to be deliberative and thoughtful rather than knee-jerk and immediate.
The conventional wisdom is that BlackBerry's acquisition by Fairfax Financial Holdings -- an ignominious fate simply based on the bland genericism of the buyer's name - marks the end of the company as a consumer tech brand. That's what Dan Rowinksi wrote today in a widely read piece on Readwrite.com, in which he argues that with the hardware division dead, the company is "now an enterprise security company." He cites Prem Watsa, chairman and CEO of Fairfax, who "essentially said that BlackBerry is going to completely forget about the consumer market to focus all of its energy on the enterprise."
I don't buy it, and I have an alternative strategy.
First, the reason for my skepticism:
The genie is already out of the bottle; consumer preference -- empowered by iPhone -- has forever transformed the enterprise. The bring-your-own-device tsunami even has a Wikipedia page. Yes, BlackBerry has proprietary encryption; their IT division "is among the small number of networks of the world which the NSA cannot hack."
But there's a small and shrinking market for that level of encryption -- even among privacy fanatics -- and if Apple and Samsung's enterprise growth is going to be held back for a moment by security concerns, does anybody really think that they don't have the cash and resources to crush the BlackBerry advantage by creating their own encrypted network for the enterprise? They could do it before you can say, "Does Obama use a BlackBerry any more?"
But unlike those who believe the hardware business is finito, I think there's a remaining opportunity that is somewhere between niche and substantial, and that could create an enduring role for the beloved but now passé, eBay-ready CrackBerry.
Here's my recommendation to Prem Watsa:
• Ask yourself: why are people still buying iPods, albeit it at a declining rate? Consider that iPods generated $1.06 billion for Apple during the April-June 2012 period. The answer: people still want a device dedicated to doing one thing well. All-purpose isn't for all people.
• BlackBerry's equivalent one-thing-well is email. In fact, BlackBerry's email superiority to iPhone is vastly more dramatic than any iPod advantages in music. Everyone knows that the transcendent powers of the smartphone have created a resigned acceptance with its incontrovertible failure as an email device. The frustration isn't just palpable to users, it's been captured in a hilarious website, damnyouautocorrect.com.
• Create a community around those who live and die by email. Celebrate them for communicating in the robust sentences enabled by BlackBerry, versus the digital grunts required by the touch screen interface. Your new mantra: Expression shouldn't be limited by technology. Deal in complete thoughts, not continually misinterpreted shorthand. And have fun with mocking the inherent limitations of the touch screen.
• Focus your innovation on your core and your roots: new ways to improve email. Think about it. Email has been completely devoid of any innovation, while the app world has exploded with orgasmic entrepreneurial energy. I can't believe that email has reached the end of its innovation cycle; wouldn't you want a Snapchat of email, for example? (I know Martha Stewart and Fabulous Fab sure would.) And why hasn't BlackBerry introduced voice-to-email, or better ways to sort and file? BlackBerry should have been the one funding entrepreneurs like those who created an "in-box taming app" called Mailbox for which there's a waiting list. It's not too late.
• Don't be afraid of a two-device world. Embrace it, market it, and put it out into the culture. I see it all the time; many people maintain their BlackBerry alongside their iPhone or Galaxy. Pocket expansion or purse overweighting is a small price to play for the bliss of completing a sentence without correction or corruption.
Sexy shots of an iPhone and a BlackBerry on the bar would start to encourage this joint behavior.
Find and market to those vertical segments that require elaborate, thoughtful communication. Law firms, senior management, government, consulting =- these are just some areas where the fullness of email still plays a central role. There's a latent recognition that smartphones are email failures; tap into it and run with it as if your life depended on it. Because it does.
We all know the tragic trajectory -- BlackBerry was cool, then rapidly became unhip, uncool, unwanted. It can never reclaim coolness, but it can claim smartness. Which is the next best thing.