BlackBerry Shall Give Not Their Years Unto to Cruel:
The Fading of a Legend Must be stopped
The iconic, legendary BlackBerry…some of us love it for what it is now; some of us love it for what it always was. That said, in this world dominated by iPhone and Android devices, it seems BlackBerry love is a losing game. There is however, no doubt at all, that the company once called Research in Motion, now simply BlackBerry, is still fighting hard. BlackBerry has not quit the game and is not going anywhere anytime soon. Even with a bunch of cash stockpiled up and having the long history of experience being one of the first smartphone companies ever, thanks to mainstream media, particularly in the USA, the commonly held notion is that BlackBerry is nearly dead. This is certainly far from the truth, but arguments aside, there is also no doubt that the company is struggling. Not only are they struggling financially as a company, but they are also desperately grasping at the last strands of hope that remain in their favor to maintain relevance in today’s smartphone market. The company is far too close to being long forgotten in the United States; they are far too close to this fate for any CrackBerry addict’s comfort.
So what has gone wrong with the launch of BlackBerry 10 in the US? Is it just not good enough? Are core users satisfied as a whole? Are new users being enticed sufficiently to buy or at least try a BlackBerry 10 device? Just what is going on in the USA with BlackBerry 10? First, the problem must be examined from an extremely practical and brutally honest (to use CEO Heins’ own words) perspective; the US launch was flawed and both the carriers and BlackBerry are at fault here. BlackBerry needs to step up their advertising and marketing in the USA. It does not take someone long just cruising through the CrackBerry forums to stumble upon now countless “armchair CEO” posts complaining about the present situation, more like SNAFU, of brand awareness and point of sale traction here in the states. Then, BlackBerry 10 has a vast amount of potential; in some ways, more potential than any of the other mobile operating systems presently on the market. The problem is, not enough of this potential is being utilized to full capacity, or even at all presently. Legacy features are missing which should have not only been present at launch, but improved upon from OS 7.1 right off the bat. Lastly, some of the best, core features of BlackBerry 10, such as Hub, Peek, and Flow functionality, need to be kicked up several notches. Sure, they are presently amazing concepts and serve as great functionalities for many BlackBerry users already. However, these features hold so much more potential, and should their potential be taken advantage of in future development of the OS (the sooner the better), they could go from being the current moderate advantages of BlackBerry 10 they are, to making BlackBerry 10 clearly the ultimate mobile computing platform. BlackBerry 10 has been out for a while now, Q10 sales are starting to kick in (at least we hope), so needless to say now is the time to go all out for BlackBerry.
Against Thee Wickedly
Carrier retail stores these days are becoming decreasingly focused on selling cell phones in general, and drastically more centered on selling smartphones. I have been to more than several carrier stores, both corporate and premium/limited retailer locations, for multiple carriers, and the vast majority of the phones being sold are smartphones. Sure, BlackBerry devices are usually pushed off to the back corner, not on display or on display with only a demo model, but the same is essentially true for the basic cell phones and feature phone brands that remain. If a typical consumer walks into a carrier retail store presently, the most likely scenario will be he or she walks out with a smartphone. Granted, if he or she is adamant about wanting a bargain, it may be a low-end Android or Windows Phone device, but still the fact remains, smartphones are becoming the more common type of handset device consumers purchase. In some ways, this is not all that bad; after all, access to the Internet is heading in the direction of being open for all, and as technology becomes more advanced, more of it exists, and the more it exists, the wider the range of devices there are. This makes smartphones, which were once (mostly BlackBerrys and) used almost solely by business men and women along with prosumers, become vastly more available to everyday consumers and their families. Obviously, long story short, time has gone by, and then some more time went by, and here we have the Android and iOS domination status quo. These two brands have established a market very strongly, and more than secured their relevance here in the United States (as well as other countries of course, too). The situation has become so streamlined that many folks in the USA have forgotten about BlackBerry and don’t even remember their existence, not to mention have no care to look back. I still remember the days when tech expert after tech expert weighed in on BlackBerry needing or not needing to make a solid iPhone killer. Some of them didn’t even think iOS posed a threat to BlackBerry. Well apparently, as we all know now in the present day, BlackBerry, then RIM, took that a great deal too much to heart. They let it sink into their heads that they need not worry about the competition; the business market was currently and would always be more than enough to keep them in business and a leader. They could not have been more wrong.
Now we have businesses, even some government organizations leaving BlackBerry. BlackBerry market share is down to about 1.5% in the USA, and it almost could not get any worse. There are anecdotal reports all over these forums talking about sales representatives at carrier retail stores and Best Buys bashing BlackBerry, advising customers not to buy them often times without a solid, good reason. In some severe cases, sales representatives even have given customers that are fully confident in their decision to purchase a BlackBerry a hard time. As mentioned above, BlackBerry 10 is often not given the display it deserves in stores; it is not even given a fighting chance. The carrier retail stores are content with inevitably becoming iPhone and Android device stores. What happened to the good old American spirit of promoting and fostering competition?
Perhaps one of the worst things the US carriers have done to BlackBerry, (or do in general, to be fair,) is withhold updates for an unacceptably long period of time. Generally, almost all of the carriers worldwide approve updates within a reasonable timeframe after BlackBerry has a new official update to push out. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada have carriers that approve the updates extremely fast, sometimes in just a week or two. Other countries may take a bit longer, but the USA is by far the worst. The first major update to BlackBerry 10, known as 10.1 (but technically of the 10.1.0.1xxx family of releases), rolled out to most countries at the beginning of May. It was said by BlackBerry that the USA should have it by the end of the month. T-Mobile USA, rolled out the update on June 10th. The update had no major issues, was stable, and solved the primary issue affecting the BlackBerry Z10 at the time, which was the “random reboot” bug. AT&T pushed out the same release version that T-Mobile did towards the end of the month, but then the next morning immediately pulled it, giving no explanation to their customers that downloaded it or missed it. It took AT&T until July 9th to finally roll out their approved 10.1 for good. Verizon, the worst of them all, took their sweet time, and continually sent back releases to BlackBerry for reportedly strangely minor reasons, and let their existing Z10 customers rot on an early, probably never intended for mass release build of 10.0.9.x. That’s right, Verizon customers, until very recently, could not use a great deal of the apps in the BlackBerry World, and had to suffer the most random reboots, among other aggravating glitches, the most, by far, of any carrier in the world. With this in mind, there was a rumor from a firm that was refuted by BlackBerry which stated that BlackBerry 10 devices had the most returns by far compared to other smartphone devices. While this was not true, and returns were in line with other premium smartphone brands, I would not be surprised if by now, they do have more returns, especially on Verizon, and it is not their fault if true. The sales representatives already are on average uninformed and unsupportive (sometimes at full fault of their own) enough, but now they have to deal with people returning BlackBerry Z10s complaining of their device randomly rebooting? This without a doubt gave all too many folks a sour aftertaste with BlackBerry 10. It made it sound like legacy BlackBerry issues are back with a vengeance, when in reality, BlackBerry had fixed the majority of these problems over a month before Verizon and AT&T let their subscribers in on the fixed OS releases.
So underneath the aftermath of all of this, whatever that may prove to be, what can BlackBerry still do to remedy this situation? Well, the first and foremost thing I can suggest boldly (and I have seen a great many contribute this idea as well) is to dictate (or more realistically highly suggest) proper in-store setups and displays to show off BlackBerry 10. If BlackBerry really wants to make a true comeback in the USA, it should go without saying (especially at this point) that the first big hurdle they need to overcome is grabbing peoples’ attention and holding it for more than a few seconds. This attention cannot be “oh, wow they are more modern like iOS and Android now”, nor “they are finally up to part”, and certainly not “cool but I don’t think I need that with my current phone.” BlackBerry 10 needs to show people what it can do for them, and it needs to show it fast! A recent commercial I have been seeing on TV a few times now, apparently coming from BlackBerry directly, advertises the Q10 for the “Keyboard Love” campaign. I call it the “It’s Time” commercial, because it uses that line repeatedly to quickly and fairly effectively demonstrate to the average consumer what a smartphone should be able to do that their current one cannot necessarily do. This is most definitely a glimmer of hope and a step in the right direction, but we must keep reminding ourselves that while it is not good to be pessimistic, we have to keep it real while fighting on iOS and Android’s sacred ground. People need to be wowed; they need to be wowed enough to go into their local retail store and ask a sales representative to see one of the new BlackBerry 10 devices. And here’s the real challenge: the sales representatives, at this point, might as well be thought of as consumers too. They are most often young workers that suggest phones not based on technical knowledge but rather primarily opinion. The real challenge for BlackBerry is to become “cool” enough that the sales representatives support it. In other words, this is a two-step problem: first BlackBerry needs to spark considerable consumer interest, and then BlackBerry needs to light up their point of sale traction. BlackBerry 10 is the underdog, but it is trying to be the new, rebranded underdog too, which means consumers will not necessarily be likely to invest in a device on their own. They will look to the opinions of those they deem the experts, and those people are the point of sale representatives. Solve both parts of the problem, and then BlackBerry will start to get some of the traction back they deserve. Not to state the obvious, but BlackBerry will not survive in the US market by the few converts here and there, and the diehard fans such as myself (who would buy a BlackBerry from Canada if they were no longer available here anyway).
The Mobile Computing Promise: We’re Not There Yet
If I had to honestly pick the one thing (okay, category of things) that annoys/disappoints me the most about BlackBerry 10, it would be missing legacy features, specifically the ones that could have added to the mobile computing promise. I knew beforehand that it was highly likely that some features would be trimmed and/or consolidated, some more rightfully so than others, in such a goal to hardcore-modernize a very old brand. But the issue with this is two-fold: one, the company simply cannot afford to have their core user base erode at all, and two, so many of the legacy features are what made BlackBerry the iconic BlackBerry. I will always miss my charging pods that did not require a USB connection. I will always miss my extremely customizable notifications (but admittedly not the obsessive-compulsivity that goes with setting them up). I will always miss the level of configuration and functionality (and stability) BlackBerry Desktop Manager provided, along with true Outlook sync. We just do not know if those things are going to ever come back to the way they were in the legacy BlackBerry OS. We can hope, we can wish, (I would say pray but it is still just a piece of technology), but it may or may not happen regardless. I am a huge advocate of providing feedback repeatedly at continuous intervals and through multiple channels to ensure the company hears the voice of their customers. (Perhaps this article is partly for that purpose.)
One of the more immediate aspects of the old OS I miss most that I think could be relatively easily added back is universal landscape support. This would be huge for mobile computing. I have brought this up almost to the nausea-inducing degree on the forums repeatedly, and it seems people either agree whole-heartedly with me or couldn’t care less. Some even justify its absence as okay since iOS and Android don’t have universal landscape support. But again we must remember: BlackBerry needs to be different and they need to be different in a clearly positive way, as fast as technologically possible. Working on adding universal landscape support is a good time investment, in my opinion, because presently, I am very aware I am still using just a smartphone. Now, don’t get me wrong, my BlackBerry 10 device is undoubtedly a power tool for me. Still, I am sick of always having to ultimately resort to working vertically due to the home screen, Active Frames, and most annoyingly, Flow, being vertical-only. The way I see it, Heins should have waited to go on the offensive with the few outdated Apple iOS comments he made, particularly about flowing in and out of apps. BlackBerry 10 Flow works wonders when you use it vertically, but when you are in landscape, it essentially goes back to in and out without a button, more or less. Ultimately, I advocate for all applications and elements of the user interface being usable in either vertical or landscape mode, except for a very few special circumstances. The phone app should obviously be restricted to vertical mode unless the speakerphone is turned on. Widescreen video games should probably be restricted to landscape. The video camera should be restricted to landscape, (and hey, that’s one that currently is usable in both orientations), unless Earth suddenly becomes heavily populated with vertical-eyed aliens that contribute to our society, and cause us to build vertical movie theatres and screen displays. Really though, most everything else that I can think of should be available in both orientations. Even if a developer is making an app that involves a great deal of scrolling, such as a news feed app, and he or she cannot fathom why the end user would want to rotate it, it should still be implemented in my honest opinion. Making a usage assumption is not the optimal mindset for designing applications or user interfaces, the way I see it. If this is truly a mobile computing platform, which I certainly hope it is and will prove to be sooner rather than later, then universal orientation support is important. This will allow for the creation of docking stations that aren't useless(which need I say has mobile computing written all over it), and cease rendering kickstands on cases moot.
Another key issue with BlackBerry 10 is I, along with countless others on CrackBerry, see oh so much potential, but it is not being utilized to its fullest capacity. Active Frames are great. They, in essence, combine the widgets concept with application switching, which is a unique asset for BlackBerry. But they could easily blast off and be the ultimate thing since sliced bread if they would evolve to be Interactive Frames, to borrow a term coined from CrackBerry editors themselves. The first step is to make some frames pinnable to the top, such as perhaps four to start. The next step is to improve and enhance developer communication and support programs, namely Built for BlackBerry of course, to include criteria to ensure developers are taking advantage of such functions in the OS whenever and wherever possible. Developers of third party applications, big or small, complex or simple, contribute greatly to the Flow experience. If developers do not put in Active Frame support, and instead make it a static icon or have it do nothing, we are essentially back where we were with the OS 7.1 App Switcher. Certain default apps like the Browser simply show a minimized view of where the user left off, which is barely acceptable when there is an instance in which no logical consensus for what an Active Frame should contain can be reached. However, I would like to see more and more apps utilize Active Frames. This does not just mean throwing a battery meter on any old app because one can; this means putting true thought into what information could be displayed to the end user about this app that would enable he or she to not always have to open (maximize) the app. Additionally, once orientation support becomes universal, which I will again say I hope strongly that it does, developers in the BFB program should also be held to this. Finally, once all of the above is accomplished, it is then time to start internally testing and playing with the Interactive Frames idea. How can the frames themselves be interacted with? Will this require a redesign of the frames altogether, and how does this tie into vertical and landscape orientations? And equally importantly, how can it be determined which apps would be best suited to have an Interactive Frame rather than just an Active Frame? Is it based on functionality, such as the Music app allowing for basic player controls through the frame? Or, perhaps it can be made even more sophisticated to enable the Weather app to allow for toggling the view of forecasts for different days/hours, or even perhaps manual control for scrolling through stories on the CB10 app. There are a lot of questions to say the least. I feel, though, that these are extremely important questions to ask because it will help BlackBerry 10 truly evolve into one beast of a mobile computing platform. Moreover, it may prove to be one of the core features that are enough to make people on other platforms glance over and keep glancing over, until they are in front of a clerk's desk scanning their BlackBerry purchase.
Closing Remarks: I’m in ‘till the End
That subtitle may sound a bit negative—I do not think BlackBerry’s end is in sight. I think they will more or less pull through, even if worse comes to worse and they maintain a low market share in the USA. I believe, being a teacher-in-training, that small, incremental improvements are key to finding true success in just about any situation in life. It is true that I am in it to the end, if it comes down to that. I will use BlackBerry devices until I can no longer purchase models that are fully compatible with my carrier’s frequencies bands. Being a long-term, loyal T-Mobile customer, that effectively means so long as Wind and Mobilicity in Canada sell BlackBerrys, I will buy them. But obviously, this is not true for everyone, in fact, even some former-BlackBerry diehards and CrackBerry addicts are starting to “go to rehab” and look at their other options, or at least are considering it. With the BlackBerry 10 devices improving quite quickly (yes, I am pretty pleased with the speed of updates being produced, [not talking about speed of roll-outs of course],) I cannot say I fully understand the level of negativity that BlackBerry 10 gets even on its fan center here on CrackBerry Forums, but nevertheless, to each his or her own. All I can say is, if BlackBerry 10 promises to Keep Moving towards their promise, within reason, I am going down with the ship, if the ship goes down. I do not believe it will. I believe this is not a Titanic redux. This is a brand that will come forward in the end and sever the wicked aspects of their situation from among the just, and prove the way of life is above to wise and successful. They will prove BlackBerry does in fact “keep you moving”, and they will demonstrate what BlackBerry 10 “can do for you”. They do need to do all of that though, and they need to do it as soon as possible. The path is grim for the former RIM if they cannot pull this off. They need the USA market, like it or not. Needless to say, it will be a long and winding road, seeing as so many consumers and point of sales locations do not seem to be willing to give BlackBerry one more try. What BlackBerry needs to do, however, is show us all that it isn’t any fun for an uptown boy, whose lover has told him goodbye.
Okay, enough with the mid-sentence references. In closing, I would like to state that I dedicate this article to BlackBerry, CrackBerry, and all the loyal fans and followers (even those that currently don’t own a BlackBerry, too) that watch the company closely and wish them well.
Let’s get them all to come BackBerry!