Sunday, May 20, 2012

How Blackberry is doing today what Benares did a decade ago!

BENARES: Oh so Beautiful!

I spent four of the best years of my life in the wonderful town of Benares about a decade ago. This was the time when the internet was a very new thing and you could find people who did not have email ids. Tweety meant that yellow bird and nothing else. 20 overs cricket meant that rain had played spoil sport or something like that. You get the idea. This was a time when cyber cafes was a pretty booming business in India. You could see small shops opening up at the nook and corners of small towns and cities across India. One could access internet at one of these shops for about 20 odd bucks an hour. Benares was no exception to this trend. If anything, it had more of these shops because a whole lot of international tourists come there to explore this rich heritage town which is arguably one of the oldest cities in the world. There were a lot of these shops next to the banks of the river Ganges (the famous ghats). One evening, while roaming around on one of the ghats with friends, I saw a cyber cafe which proclaimed, like all other cyber cafes, it had internet along with phone, photostat, STD, ISD etc. What was interesting was that the board in front of the shop also mentioned it had,,! My friends and I had a good laugh about it - obviously if you have internet, you have all of it but this guy mentioned those separately as if he had special connections to those websites!

Do I need to buy a Blackberry for IM, email and (Android) apps?

Laughing about a thing like this was fine, especially in a small town like Benares. However, of late, when I see Blackberry advertising its BBM as its USP, I am reminded of that cyber cafe again! BBM and enterprise email were USPs for Blackberry about 5 years ago but today with smart phones proliferating like political scams in the Manmohan Singh government, these USPs seem a bit dated. I don't need BBM today to message my friends without eating up my minutes - I can use anything like gTalk or dozens of other IM clients. They did try to popularise the BBM thing by allowing people to connect to other BBM users using just their QR code. But who really would carry their QR code literally on their sleeve to connect to any one on the street? Having said that, I recently had to eat my words when I read about Sid Mallya tweeting that the girl who claimed that Luke Pomersbach assaulted her was all over Sid in a party for his BBM! 

So, point of points is that Blackberry was (and is) a great product but its differentiation based on the email and messenger has outlived itself. It is time for the apps to rule along with full touch screen models. While it did something to allow Android apps to be available on Blackberry (but still there are problems there), it took quite some time to move away from the physical qwerty phones. They seemed to have taken too much time in understanding the market direction and how it was sweeping the ground from underneath them.

What should Blackberry do?

OK - easy to rip apart a company based on what it did not do. Now, what would you do if you were Blackberry? How would you get back in the game? Its differentiation in the features space is gone. Apps is the new battle ground - BB is lagging behind Android and iPhone by miles. It has got into an arrangement with Android to let Android apps work on BB also but that only underscores the point that there are not enough developers making apps for BB. So, it ends up being there as another Samsung or HTC where it can fight the battle on the basis of its old relationships or some sort of really cool UI on top of the native Android. But as some others have found out, this does not sound much of an exciting story as it would fall into the commodity area. One good exit strategy here would have been to get sold to Google who could then use them for creating a hardware cum software integrated phone manufacturer. But Motorola beat them to this game as well!

How should BB differentiate in today's world?

So, the only way out for BB then seems to be to move up on the differentiation scale. Provide features and services that are really niche. For instance, they could provide extraordinary email features to make the mobile email experience closer to that of the desktop email access. While I kinda kicked BBM and Blackberry email earlier, they do provide encryption which is crucial for security and enterprises must like that. Given the security concerns raised on and off regarding Android and even iOS, security could be the big differentiator. Alternately, BB could  create multiple devices like the Playbook and create an eco system that would help a BB user become more mobile and still more user friendly. What I am referring to is the creation of additional docks which can be used to connect the small phone to a larger screen with keyboard to enhance the overall experience of the consumer. But all these can also be copied by the competition sooner than later but if BB is confident about its technology, it can try this or some other niche features which will help it retain its differentiation.

Should Blackberry reinvent itself as a software security provider to other mobile phone manufacturers?

An offshoot of the first option could be that BB should  totally move out of the hardware business and just provide security layers for other phone manufacturers. Maybe BB could come up as an app on the Android, iOS and Windows Marketplace for users who want to ensure their emails and IMs are secure. A lot of enterprises would probably like to enforce that. I guess this is the most drastic option that completely changes everything but one that Blackberry should consider based on their own analysis of the strengths of the company. 

Blackberry did a Benares in still using BBM as USP; can it again do a Benares in terms of retaining its rich heritage and prestige, and reinvent itself, so many years later as well?


  1. A very crisp and clear post on the topic. I liked the Benares connection to Blackberry and totally agree with the view. Keep writing!!!

  2. I agree with you that the only USP that remains with BB is the e-mail security it offers through its BES (BBM is no longer secure!!). iOS and Android are superior to BB on most counts, including on the all-important user-interface, as well as the range and diversity of applications that they can support (BB still doesn't support a good VoIP app in India, such as Skype or Viber). Overall, I feel iOS reigns with its strong vertical integration of hardware and software, something that Google hopes to achieve sooner than later. Thank you very much for this very interesting piece. The comparison between Blackberry and Benares indeed made a fascinating read!