As a relatively recent business school graduate, it doesn’t seem too long ago that I was sitting in some of my, ahem, less scintillating lectures wherein seemingly everyone was checking emails, playing games or texting on their Blackberrys. In 2008 Blackberry was the undisputed industry standard boasting 14 million subscribers and virtually becoming a pre-requisite for working professionals and business students everywhere. Merely a year and a half has passed since my student days yet the mobile landscape has changed significantly, namely in a steadily increasing number of subscribers for both Android and Apple coupled with a markedly sharp decrease in the number of Blackberry (RIM) subscribers. If I were to return to those same classrooms today, I’d almost certainly see a different picture wherein Blackberrys are challenged, possibly even outnumbered, by iPhones and Android devices. The question is how and when this giant fell and, better yet, if it is even possible for Blackberry to recover the lost ground at this point. Answering these questions requires a deeper look into the mobile environment and the innovative “game changers” that have seemingly knocked Blackberry off its pedestal.
The Blackberry was originally introduced by Research in Motion (RIM) in 1999 although they didn’t start really gaining traction until the early 2000’s. By 2003, the platform was 4 years old and had just hit a milestone 1 million subscribers. Just ten months following, Blackberry had over 2mil subscribers worldwide and by 2006 subscribers totaled 5 million. However, it was the period between 2006-2008 that Blackberry really penetrated the market growing to over 14 million subscribers worldwide. Currently Blackberry boasts 70 million subscribers.
In its heyday, the Blackberry was considered to be THE go-to phone for enterprise mobile-device management. Blackberry smartphones are infamously easy to integrate with an organization’s email system which made them a favorite amongst corporate types. Additionally, the encryption features make the devices extremely safe to use which reduces liability for businesses. During the 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama’s dependence on his Blackberry device was widely publicized and is estimated to have driven between $25-50 million in profits for RIM.
Rise of iPhone and Android
First introduced in 2007, the iPhone 2G received a warm welcome to the mobile device market by mobs of brand enthusiasts camped outside Apple stores hoping to be the first to buy. In the same year, the original device also received the “Invention of the Year” award by Time Magazine. In each year following, Apple has released a new version of the iPhone to much fanfare, its most recent release of the iPhone 4S debuting last month.
However, the iPhone didn’t go unrivaled for long. Not to be outdone, technical juggernaut Google introduced Android, its free, open-source mobile operating system, in 2008 and quickly gained popularity in 2009 with the release of Android 2.0. By February 2010, Google estimated that more than 60,000 Android phones were shipping each day. Most recently in November 2011, Google cited close to 200 million Android devices in use and continues to innovate with its latest OS: Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich.
In May 2011, the smartphone market had proliferated to include 76.8 million people in the US, up 11% from the prior quarter, with Android ranking as the top operating system with 38.1% of subscribers. Apple followed at 26.6% with RIM falling into third at 24.7%, a drop of 4.2% since February. Both Google Marketplace and the Apple App Store boast hundreds of thousands of available app downloads, both free and paid, whereas Blackberry’s App World has been criticized for its lack thereof. Long ago bypassed by both Android and iPhone in its hip factor, Blackberry has also recently been bypassed by iPhone in the business use category, traditionally its bread and butter. iPhone now possesses 45% of the business market while Blackberry has slipped to 32.2%, down from 34.5% in 2010.
The Road Ahead
In an increasingly large smartphone market, decreasing marketshare for Blackberry - namely in the business sector - coupled with plunging stock certainly seems to paint a bleak picture for Blackberry’s future. However, while it’s fair to say that the increasing popularity of iPhone and Android devices threaten Blackberry’s success, this may not be the end for the once popular platform just yet. A focus on getting back to the company’s roots of intelligent handsets may help the company get back on its feet. Additionally, RIM recently announced a Blackberry Packager for Android which allows Android developers to port apps to the PlayBook platform. It is of this author’s opinion that a similar packager introduced for Blackberry phones, or a complete overhaul of RIM and corresponding adoption of the Android platform, could be enough to regenerate interest in the devices. If all else fails, RIM could always be acquired by one of its competitors or a tech conglomerate with a larger balance sheet to retool and rethink the Blackberrys of the future. While the road ahead is still uncertain, it won’t truly be over for Blackberry until it’s over.