Last year at BlackBerry's annual user conference there was a strange unease blanketing the entire affair. The company was transitioning to a new CEO, it was struggling to get the new BlackBerry 10 platform out the door, and it's big answer to its problems curiously seemed to be a fancy mobile cellphone camera, a luxury car that can run QNX, and hiring Alicia Keys to do whatever it is that Alicia Keys does (I still DON'T KNOW why the two have joined forces).
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Fast forward a year later and the company has the same CEO, a new name, its shining BB 10 platform has been dumped into the wilds of the mobile world, the luxury car running QNX has been upgraded from a Porsche to a Bentley, and Alicia Keys is still doing whatever it is that Alicia Keys does. What a difference a year makes.
Instead of unease, the feeling by many IT pros attending BlackBerry Live in Orlando was one of cautious optimism, best encapsulated by the following two quotes uttered to me (the names have been left out to protect the innocent):
- "Look, I'm already a BlackBerry customer. I don't need the f***ing constant sales pitch for why I should be down with BlackBerry. What I need is for them to tell me what the new stuff is going to do for me, how much it's going to cost me, and how easy and quick I can get it up and running. I like BlackBerry, I think our users will like the new devices once they get their hands on them, but sometimes I wonder if they get that."
- "I told my sales rep that I needed to see the new hotness this week otherwise I'm switching to iOS when I get back to work. I don't know if what I saw will prevent me from switching but I think BlackBerry bought itself some more time before I ultimately decide."
Here's the thing: BlackBerry is in a tough spot. They are truly caught in the middle between the consumers and the IT pros supporting mobile at their organizations. A lot of people I talked to said they have invested in BES infrastructure and still deploy BlackBerry devices, but that's combined with deploying iOS devices, or doing BYOD, and relying on a second MDM vendor (AirWatch and MobileIron were the two popular ones) to manage everything else.
At the same time, the majority of those people said they would ditch the secondary MDM product in favor of BES 10 in a heartbeat on the assumption that it can effectively/securely do all the things for iOS and Android devices it does for BB devices. Really, the biggest takeaway from BlackBerry Live is why haven't they gone all-in for enterprises? During the conference keynote there was almost nothing aimed at the company's core customer-base. There is a disconnect between what BlackBerry seems to be doing and what they should be doing to regain momentum, which is puzzling to say the least.
It's easy to say none of this matters because the end-user has all the power, the company is just going the way of the dodo (there should probably be a more apt tech reference for going extinct that rolls off the tongue), blah blah blah. But, objectively, BlackBerry still has a TON going for it in terms of enterprise mobility, and IT still has the power so long as they are offering end-users tools and technologies worth using.
Allow me this quick tangent: Part of this realization became crystal clear when speaking with a friend of mine who works in the financial industry ahead of a talk I delivered on enterprise mobility for the Wall Street Technology Association. Most organizations I've spoken with in my time covering enterprise mobility, including the large financial institutions attending WSTA, have either stuck with BlackBerry much to the chagrin of its users, or moved to a mixed environment with iOS and BlackBerry, or they allow some kind of BYOD. But, mostly, they are still standardized around BlackBerry. And, in each of the last two instances, much of the management of those devices is predominantly done with just ActiveSync.
My friend said he has a BlackBerry for work, carries a personal iPhone with him when traveling, and that there are thousands and thousands of young professionals just like him across the country. He can use his personal iPhone for work instead of a BlackBerry through Good Technology, but that experience isn't great and he'd rather just carry two devices. Anyway, he has no desire to mingle his work and personal devices into a single device for privacy reasons, mainly, but also others as well. But, the only reason he has an iPhone is because his BlackBerry is only good for email and texting. When I ask him what he uses his iPhone for, he said, mainly browsing the web, online banking, and a few other things.
So, why am I not willing to write off BlackBerry? Because the reality on the ground, from both an IT and end-user perspective, seems at odds with the larger story being pushed that companies can't wait to adopt iOS devices and end-users have all the decision making power. That rift is not as pronounced as everyone in the industry wants us to believe.
The new BlackBerry devices might be something users would be okay with using. I like them. They are on par with Android/iOS. Different, certainly, but no worse. Most users, like my friend and other non-tech people using a mobile device at work I've spoken with, would be more than happy if given a BlackBerry 10 device for work. Companies using BES 5 and ActiveSync (or another MDM vendor) to manage mobility want the least cumbersome path possible to manage all devices and ownership scenarios from a single place. For many of the 76 million active BES customers, that's upgrading to BES 10 and dropping its SaaS-based MDM product. BlackBerry has an opportunity to really push forward with an infrastructure/services play in enterprise mobility even if nobody ends up wanting to use its new devices.
Why are they pushing its terrible BBM Channels, it's Twitter-like thing (I really have NO IDEA what it is?), when they could be building out an enterprise-friendly unified communication tool (imagine Google's spiffy new Hangouts service but without privacy concerns and security baked in) that combines BBM, MVS, and additional pieces?
Further, BlackBerry is never going to compete with Apple for the spending money and love of consumers. Personally, I'm never going to ditch my iPhone for a Z10. But why does it seem apathetic about convincing enterprises to stick with them? Why aren't they rolling out enterprise mobile services that enable productivity? Why were there no major enterprise mobile app partnerships announced? Why did they 100% have no Playbook tablet announcement? Why do they have a lot of positive pieces to offer enterprises, yet seemingly have no plan or desire to go all-in?
In 2013, the only number to pay attention to will be the percentage or number of customers that migrate onto the BlackBerry10 platform. If it's potentially as high as I think it could be that will be huge for the company. Number of devices sold and number of apps in the store don't matter at all. How many companies upgrade from BES 5 to BES 10 is what matters -- if those numbers are good, BlackBerry will be more than forthcoming with those figures.
ONE MORE THING: I have some Steve Jobs in me. For those that care, BlackBerry intends to launch a SaaS-version of BES 10 this summer. I couldn't get much in the way of details to write an actual news story about it, but from what I understand, companies can license a hosted version of BES that runs from within BlackBerry's infamous NOC. It'll have all the same benefits of BES just not be installed on-premises. Of course, like a lot of things BlackBerry announced at BB Live, this would have been great in 2009. We'll try to update once we get more concrete information.
(On another note, it's probably easier to communicate a lot of these things via a podcast, because I'm sure many of ya'll are ready to crucify me in the comments. Let's get on it Jack!)