Last Friday, just prior to their earnings release, short positions on BlackBerry stock were at an all time high. It’s a sad state of affairs for a company once considered the unstoppable and rightful heirs to the enterprise handset and integrated service provider throne. Today, many consider it less a question of if BlackBerry can right itself than a question of when it will ultimately collapse. My mother always told me that if I can’t say something nice, not to say anything at all, so I thought I would try to see if I could invent a few plausible ways the company might be able to find its way to success—or, at least, a sustainable future.
1. Unchain The Astonishing Tribe.
When BlackBerry acquired this legendary UI firm, I had incredibly high hopes. And I will admit, their influence on UI design (as originally seen in the playbook and ultimately in BB10) was a huge improvement. But it was still constrained to following the existing apps, icons and segregated information stream design of the iPhone—a paradigm within which even Apple is feeling increasing inertia. Nobody really wants another different kind of iPhone. And if they do, it’s a desire satisfied quite well by an HTC One or a Samsung Galaxy S4. Continuing with the current BB10 direction is tantamount to rearranging deck chairs. In 2006, the iPhone was the future. Now, it is the expected. BlackBerry has the best of the best in UI talent. They should let them have an unrestrained opportunity to change the world.
2. Double down on security.
The legacy of RIM was always tied to security. Sure, they offered a classic pavlovian vibrating reward system every time a message arrived at the handset, but if it weren’t for the enterprise- and government-level security, those handsets would have never made it into the CEO’s money-stained digits. So, what kind of sandbox? Taking a page from the Microsoft playbook, let’s assume that whatever RAM and processor demands our secure OS will require, that Moore’s law will eventually take care of it. Assuming that, if I were designing a more secure mobile OS from scratch I would follow the examples set by modern server OS architecture and expect it to have a high-assurance kernel supporting virtual machines handling separate tasks. Create a highly secure VM for mission critical tasks and a less secure VM to handle casual browsing and entertainment. Finally, I want a separate VM available to run as a Guest account for when I hand my handset to my kids or a coworker.
3. Unlock the boot loader and make hardware drivers open source.
Geeks are the Trojan horse of the handset industry. Give them an unrestricted playground and they will beat a path to your door. How big is this market? Tiny. How big is the influence of this group of tinkerers? Huge. All it takes is one incredible custom ROM that is easy to install and suddenly even stock hardware gains an increased cool factor.
4. Leave the retail handset/tablet business entirely and focus on enterprise servers and apps.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the handset wars are settled. By ceding this market to the victors, BlackBerry could easily lose the overhead of manufacturing hardware and focus on delivering the most secure email and messaging infrastructure along with front-end apps that offer high-level, end-to-end encryption. No back doors for India—or for our own Project-Prism-inclined NSA for that matter. Imagine the Swiss Bank of messaging and scheduling. That could mean BlackBerry hosts services at a central location, or simply provides a shrink-wrapped solution backed by BlackBerry licensed security contractors for internal deployment at the enterprise.
5. Change the conversation.
At this point, it’s, “Everybody pile on BlackBerry.” The tenor of the conversation doesn’t lend itself to the company getting credit for what it does actually does right. The management should change how they frame quarterly EPS guidance. Analysts won’t stop creating estimates, but playing (and missing) their game lately has only hurt the stock price and the company’s reputation. They should increase their emphasis on delivering visions for the future, i.e. long-term market dynamics, visions for the future of communications, etc. Until there is something tangible that conveys a change in the company—new products, new businesses, new results—everything the company says in the way of quarterly guidance can at best serve as ammunition for the naysayers. Ignore the fortune-tellers as much as possible and focus on innovating. The most valuable guidance is success.
So, in closing, I should reveal I don’t currently, and never have, owned a BlackBerry. But I have always held a special place in my tech heart for the company. They defined the current 24/7/365 email/messaging lifestyle. They transformed corporate life by offering both increased freedom to leave the office and ironically the inability to ever really leave work. And I am always a proponent for increased competition. Finally, I am a marketer and I believe this brand has a lot of potentially viable roads it can travel, but as any seasoned marketer will tell you, it’s always best to carve a new road that is all your own.