The biggest criticism of BlackBerry’s (RIMM) revamped mobile operating system and smartphone line so far is that they don’t give iOS or Android users any compelling reasons to switch brands. And this is certainly true — BlackBerry 10, for all its virtues, doesn’t do anything significantly better than the top two mobile operating systems and seems designed mostly to please the faithful and not win new converts. At the same time, I think this sort of criticism is based on somewhat unrealistic expectations for what a revamped BlackBerry would be able to achieve in its first iteration. Put simply, making its own loyal fans happy might have been the best that BlackBerry could do in this particular product cycle.
Before we go further with this line of thinking, we should remind ourselves of the truly dire state that BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins found the company in when he took it over just over a year ago.
Longtime customers were fleeing BlackBerry for iOS and Android after BlackBerry repeatedly shot itself in the foot by releasing devices that featured outdated hardware (the first-generation BlackBerry Torch) or that lacked some of the core capabilities that BlackBerry customers had come to expect (the BlackBerry PlayBook and its lack of native corporate email without a “bridge” connection). The company also got caught completely flat-footed by the rise of mobile apps as a vital component of the global smartphone ecosystem and typically wouldn’t get big-name apps on its platform for more than a year after they’d been out on iOS and Android, if at all.
Let’s also recall that when Heins announced last summer that BlackBerry 10 would be delayed until the first quarter of 2013, many of us wondered if the new operating system would ever be released or if the company would simply collapse under the weight of competitive pressures. That Heins has been able to not only get BlackBerry 10 launched but also get more than 100 carriers on board with the new platform is a pretty impressive feat. Add in that Heins has been able to score commitments from some important apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and Amazon Kindle, and you begin to appreciate just how far BlackBerry has come from almost going over the brink.
Of course, none of this is even close to being enough to make BlackBerry a force in the mobile industry anytime soon. But if ardent BlackBerry fans buy up the new BlackBerry 10 handsets and if the company maintains its corporate clients, it may be enough to let the company live to fight another day.
Benedict Evans, a strategy consultant for Enders Analysis, has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and estimates BlackBerry could sell as many as 20 million BlackBerry 10 smartphones in 2013, although he admits this number could be overly optimistic by as much as 50%. But even if BlackBerry sells just 15 million BB10 phones this year, that could be enough to give the company some breathing room while it works to recruit more app developers and generally improve its new operating system’s functionality.
This is not to say that BlackBerry has an easy road from here — the odds are still very much against it. But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, no one should have expected BlackBerry to return to its former glory overnight. As much as BlackBerry fans would love to see their favorite devices rise up and crush iOS and Android, that sort of comeback was never in the cards. The best BlackBerry can hope is that they’ve stopped the bleeding and can continue building from here.