Is the mighty BlackBerry becoming obsolete?

By Mackenzie Carpenter

Has the BlackBerry lost the edge that propelled it to the top of the smartphone world? Photo / Supplied
Has the BlackBerry lost the edge that propelled it to the top of the smartphone world? Photo / Supplied

Karl Rove was the only Bush administration staffer who had it on Air Force One on September 11, 2001; Barack Obama famously resisted giving up his after being elected president in 2008; and the paparazzi captured Sarah Jessica Parker's twins chewing on hers.

The BlackBerry - aka the CrackBerry, the addictive, must-have accessory for political and professional elites since the late 1990s - may at last be heading the way of the '57 Chevy - technically obsolete in light of the iPhone and other glitzy touchscreen devices but forever emblematic of an era.

On June 17, BlackBerry's share price tumbled after the phone's Canadian manufacturer, Research in Motion, announced layoffs in the wake of worse-than-expected quarterly profits.

In a statement, RIM's co-CEO Jim Balsillie said, "Fiscal 2012 has gotten off to a challenging start. The slowdown we saw in the first quarter is continuing into Q2 and delays in new product introductions into the very late part of August are leading to a lower-than-expected outlook in the second quarter."

That announcement triggered an online deluge of BlackBerry obituaries by disenchanted users - "Wheels Coming Off at Research in Motion", blared the headlines - mostly criticising RIM for its complacency in responding to new touch-screen technologies pioneered by Apple's iPhone in 2007 and, more recently, by the heavily marketed Android.

"RIM has given up on its users and taken itself out of the fight. Therefore I have given up on RIM," wrote "a once-loyal customer of RIM who decided he can't take it anymore", posting on CrackBerry.com.

So what happened?

Besides the company's failure to compete with the new generation of touchscreen smartphones, there are other factors at play, experts say. And some believe predictions of its demise are premature.

But there's no doubt that the BlackBerry - the first handheld email device to truly penetrate into the mainstream - has some serious catching up to do.

"The nice people at RIM did not keep up with what made them great," said Shelly Palmer, author of Beyond the Digital Divide: How to Use Social Media and Digital Tools to Reinvent Yourself and Your Career. "They essentially allowed the iPhone, and later the Android, to eat their lunch."

The BlackBerry originally catered to business users, touting its ease of integration with existing in-house corporate computer systems. Companies bought them up by the thousands. The phone, in fact, was made for company IT departments, not individual consumers, experts say, noting that they excelled early on at security and corporate integration.

That, in fact, is how the BlackBerry took off - "by selling 25,000 phones a pop to a General Motors rather than to 25,000 individuals walking around", Palmer said.

Individual consumers caught on quickly, however, becoming fans of its tactile keyboard. Plus, BlackBerry's American carriers, Verizon and Sprint, were more reliable than AT&T's sketchier network.

Now, though, the iPhone is on Verizon's network, and Microsoft Exchange and other servers are as secure as BlackBerry's was.

Employees have been pressuring companies to allow them to use their iPhones and their Androids and their other smartphones for business, instead of a company-issued BlackBerry.

Indeed, BlackBerry's slump is signaling another trend: "the demise of the corporate IT crowd," said Rodger Morrow, a Sewickley, Philadelphia-based speechwriter and communications consultant. "Corporations are now trying to get out of the hardware business," he said.

Compared with the large colourful screens of the iPhone and all its features, the BlackBerry, whose app store is minimal, at best, "just isn't as emotionally satisfying", Palmer said. He noted that the ergonomics and aesthetics of the iPhone and the Android devices "make them far more easy to use, with every button or icon where you'd expect it to be".

Culturally, the BlackBerry did seem to represent the new millennium. In his memoirs, Rove recalled how his colleagues gaped at his ability to communicate on 9/11 through his BlackBerry - even as all other government communications shut down.

There's even a website called celebrityblackberrysightings.com ("January Jones rocking her BlackBerry while shopping."), but, perhaps tellingly, recent photos showed actress Jennifer Love Hewitt with her new iPhone 4.

Some aren't ready to turn their back on the company yet, citing its favourable balance sheet, with more than US$2 billion (MZ$2.4bn) of cash and no debt. Plus, its operations generated nearly a billion dollars of cash last quarter alone - plenty to use for new research and development.

Still, the company's forays into touchscreen technology - at least initially - were a disaster. The BlackBerry Storm, unveiled as the iPhone's competitor, was nearly impossible to use, consumers said.

- AAP

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