Two challenges new BlackBerry CEO John Chen must beat

Now that it's clear that Chen knows that the handset business means for BlackBerry and exiting the handset business is not a decision that will be taken lightly or in a hurry, what should he be focusing on?


BlackBerry fans, a tribe that is almost an endangered species, often believe that media has an axe to grind when it comes to BlackBerry. Of course, as any independent observer can point out, BlackBerry has given enough ammunition on a plate for journalists to go after the once-iconic smartphone maker.

But sometimes, you've got to feel for BlackBerry. In came the announcement of BlackBerry nixing plans to put itself on the block and the announcement of a new interim CEO, John Chen, and media was awash with reports with Chen quoted as saying that BlackBerry would exit the handset business.

Chen has since gone on to trash the reports and to rhetorically ask what BlackBerry was without the device.

That doesn't mean BlackBerry won't exit the handset space. But now that it's clear what Chen knows that the handset business means for BlackBerry and exiting the handset business is not a decision that will be taken lightly or in a hurry, what should he be focusing on?

As a long-time BlackBerry user who still uses BlackBerry (not because of loyalty, but because I believe BlackBerry is best for my particular needs which mostly revolve around productivity and social) here are some quick thoughts:

Communication, communication, communication

Let's face it. As it stands today, BlackBerry 10 is a failure in the marketplace, which is all that matters in business. Reviewers can like it, adopters can love it and not get why more users won't try the mobile OS that they love, but if not enough buy it, you're dead in the water.

As a BlackBerry 10 power user, who uses a Google Nexus 4 as a very sparingly used secondary smartphone, I think communication failure is the millstone around BlackBerry's neck today. Let me put it this way -- I use my Nexus 4 so little that there are enough friends and colleagues who'll jump to buy it anytime I want to sell, because they know it has been used so little, it's in mint condition.

 Two challenges new BlackBerry CEO John Chen must beat

Communication is key: AP image

And my Nexus 4 is sparingly used not because I hate Android or think the Nexus 4 is a lousy smartphone--it's just that for my needs, a BlackBerry 10 works much better. So, if I want 360 degree panorama mode on a camera, I'll whip out the Nexus 4, but for everything from e-mail to typing articles, to social, to even Android apps like Google Maps and Instagram and the little gaming I indulge in, I prefer my BlackBerry.

But how many others know that BlackBerry 10 has the best touchscreen keyboard on the planet? When people ask me why BlackBerry and I give them a demo of my typing speed and simultaneously typing in English and Hinglish and almost-magical auto-correction that happens on the fly, I see jaws drop. And oohs and aahs when I demo BlackBerry Hub, BlackBerry's communication central on BlackBerry 10.

The question to ask is--how is it that BlackBerry has done a thoroughly horrible job of marketing and communicating these USPs and the power they bring to a smartphone user, when they knew they were in a do-or-die battle? Sure, BlackBerry also faces high negative customer sentiment, but if that's so insurmountable, why even bother to try?

Clearly, if BlackBerry has to have a chance, marketing and communication to customers has to be effective. And today, it will be many times tougher than it was when BlackBerry 10 was launched with the Z10 being the torch-bearer. But this is a bullet that must be bitten and if BlackBerry can't get this right, nothing else will matter.

Innovative, Incisive Leadership

Chen has spoken about what he's looking for in a CEO, saying that he's looking for a software person who understands the services game and who can help BlackBerry reach more people. To make it even clearer, Chen said he's not looking for a tech person.

Perhaps that's one reason why Thorsten Heins is stepping down as BlackBerry CEO. Heins definitely streamlined BlackBerry, reduced bloat and cut costs and most importantly brought in discipline to a company which had made a habit of making tall promises and then missing deadlines. Heins was installed in what was one of the hottest seats in the world of business, but thanks to the initial failure of BlackBerry 10, the seat will only get hotter and going by Heins record, he may not be able to handle the heat.

And while founder and former co-CEO founder Mike Lazaridis was reported as mulling a bid for BlackBerry, I think what BlackBerry needs today is a person in the mould of Jim Balsillie, co-CEO to Lazaridis and who handled sales & marketing and finance while Lazaridis was the man behind engineering, product management and supply chain.

In this great piece by Canada's The Globe and Mail you'll get a ringside view of what caused the downfall of a company that invented smartphones, became synonymous with smartphones and was the brand that everyone from students to executives aspired to carry, and in 2009 was crowned by Fortune as the world's fastest growing company.

Two key issues stand out for me--it's well known that Jim Balsillie wanted to take BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) cross-platform a few years ago. What is now revealed is that after stepping down as co-CEO, he completely cut off all ties with BlackBerry when his plan was nixed by Heins and Lazaridis. The irony is that nearly two years later, Heins took the same road and while BBM has received a welcome that has surprised everyoneif they had done this two years ago, BBM may have been king today and actually being monetised instead of being a challenger to the throne which first needs to get in numbers and then build engagement that can be monetised.

Second, the Globe and Mail piece refers to another Balsillie plan under which a new China-based company would be formed and owned by state-owned China Investment Corp (CIC), BlackBerry (then RIM) and some Chinese mobile phone makers. The venture was to sell Chinese-made phones powered by BlackBerry's software under a licensing arrangement. The Globe and Mail says that Beijing was sold on the deal, which would have made BlackBerry the official supplier of wireless operating systems in China, the world's biggest mobile market and one which is not easy to prise open as even Apple has discovered.

BBM could have gone cross platform a lot earlier

BBM could have gone cross platform a lot earlier

Imagine--BlackBerry could be going after Lenovo instead of the ignominy of Lenovo poaching BlackBerry.

Perhaps Balsillie may have got both bets wrong, and in hindsight, it's easier now to think Balsillie's plans could have taken BlackBerry to new heights, but the point isn't to canonise Balsillie or say he should come back.

The point is that BlackBerry needs a leader in this mould--someone who, to use badly abused management jargon, can think out-of-the-box to focus on existing and new product lines that can resurrect BlackBerry and can ensure effective communication and marketing that turns customer sentiment.

In BlackBerry 10, the company already has a powerful, future-ready operating system that's primed for productivity and there's certainly a large market for productivity, besides of course, being a great smartphone in almost every other way.

BlackBerry also needs someone who can run the show with an iron fist that stamps out product delays and long internal debates to move forward by consensus, by which time the market has changed the window of opportunity has closed.

Hopefully, going by his early thoughts and his track record, John Chen may be that man, or he may be able to find that man.

And for those who think it's impossible, take a look at this article from 1997 that talks about a company cutting workforce by 31 percent, and slashing product lines in the midst of continuous losses for five quarters.

Today this company is the most valuable brand in the world, besides boasting of being on top of the market cap stakes.

And there's also personal support from the most powerful man in the world.

While most media reports will tell you that even Barack Obama used a BlackBerry and was the first US President to carry a smartphone, the truth is that they shouldn't be referring to it in the past tense. As the spying scandal rocks the Western world. Obama is still using his BlackBerry.


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