What has become of BlackBerry is what is becoming of Microsoft, a case of "pride wenteth before their fall".
There is nothing that sums up the circumstances that have led to BlackBerry’s current state of affairs better than Proverbs 16:18 of the King James Bible.
“Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is the operative gospel here—a statement that senior executives of BlackBerry ought to internalise as they take the next few painful steps in deciding the phone-market’s future, a scenario that now includes the possibility of selling the company to the highest bidder.
For this was always BlackBerry’s (to be more accurate, RIM’s) hubris – they believed they had no need to listen to the market. “You don’t need a camera, that’s crazy talk!”, “Touch-screen keyboards? Who would ever accept that?”
This attitude carried over to its enterprise strategy as well: for the longest time they believed that no other device would gain corporate acceptance and that “employers would always make the choice for employees”. While the whole “we know what you want better than you do” shtick may have worked for Apple with Steve Jobs at its helm, it clearly hasn’t for BlackBerry.
To be fair, however, the rechristening of RIM to BlackBerry and the company’s subsequent overhaul has been a sincere, if not successful, attempt at redemption. To what end, though? BB 10 and the Z10 are certainly valiant attempts at competing with Android and iOS, but who cares? They haven’t brought anything special to the table—certainly nothing spectacular enough to whittle away consumer and developer mind-share from the entrenched competition.
The company’s turnaround plan, in part, also failed due to the strange nature of BlackBerry users. A majority of the users are quite conservative with their equipment choice, hauling around seven-year old BBs because the new model comes with ‘funny keyboards’.
In a nutshell, BlackBerry’s new foray failed to capture the non-conservative parts of the market—that ship sailed with the iPhone and Android explosion years ago and simultaneously alienated their older audiences.
The soul of a company
But the downfall of BlackBerry and other fallen companies such as Nokia cannot be encapsulated in terms of mere strategy and business tactics. It is to the ambitions and spirit of these companies we must also look.
The myths that a company spins around itself aren’t just PR tactics or to throw a bone to their rabid fanboy/girl bases. They are indicative measures of a company’s soul or the methods that they use to set themselves apart.
Steve Jobs’s famous quip, “Apple is at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts… our goal isn’t to make money”, is exactly this kind of myth. Bill Gates’s founding vision way back in 1975 was “A computer on every desk and in every home”, a statement that was crazily radical back then.
It are these myths that help ease the fundamental tension that truly great companies experience as time moves on. Each company, I firmly believe, is pulled by two strands that have the potential to pull it apart. One strand is the almost religious desire to build a business and become a money-making machine. The other, as Steve Jobs put it, is to put a ‘ding in the world’, to change it radically for the better.
What happens when the company loses its myths or its desire-to-do-something-radical strand? Microsoft is a classical example. It succeeded in putting a Windows computer in almost every home in the developed world, leaving it alone now with just its money-making strand.
It’s current thrashing and flopping (read: smartphones and tablets), almost like a dying fish out of water, is indicative of a company without myths, a company without a ‘soul strand’.
Coming back to BlackBerry—it too is similarly lost. It set out, though not with a burning passion, to change the corporate and enterprise world—and did so magnificently. After achieving much of its original goals, it fell to the wayside, allowing competition to overtake it.
In the true 12th century style ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’, convicts were not allowed to die until the quartering process. BlackBerry still has a chance to stick around: Prem Watsa’s Fairfax Financial could pull together a private buyout. But without a renewed vision, BlackBerry will not last long.
Its worst-case scenario, something that is all too likely, is being sold off piecemeal—morever to be remembered as an industry pioneer bereft of vision and ruined by its own hubris.