BlackBerry: A funhouse visionary haunted by Research in Motion
Every consumer tech company is in the business of fortune-telling. It is their job to peer into the crystal ball to identify -- and, hopefully, build -- the future. That said, BlackBerry's crystal ball must be a funhouse mirror. During its BlackBerry Live 2013 keynote, the company demonstrated its ability to be both prescient and totally oblivious, surprisingly self-aware and ignorant of today's technology market.
Besides the typical pandering and borderline-creepiness now associated with BlackBerry's keynotes, today's event featured some interesting products and technologies marred by an almost painful lack of showmanship or foresight.
Take, for example, the company's product demos and announcements. Minutes after announcing the BlackBerry Q5, a low-end, QWERTY-equipped device, the company demonstrated its in-car technology that allows drivers and passengers to video conference with others. The BlackBerry Q5 is meant for consumers in emerging markets, and will almost surely be priced as such; a pre-owned Bentley Continental GT, the car used to demonstrate BlackBerry's entry into automobile tech, costs more than $100,000.
Or consider BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins' claim that BlackBerry's leadership team is truly global, and global creative director Alicia Keys' announcement that, because there aren't enough women in leadership positions, BlackBerry will be offering 4-year scholarships to "outstanding women candidates around the world." Yet the leadership team Heins cites as being truly global consists entirely of old white men. (Not that BlackBerry is the only company guilty of this particular problem.) These scholarships could help the tech industry overcome a past and present dominated by white men, but that doesn't make Heins' assertion any less laughable.
Then there's the news that BlackBerry will be bringing BlackBerry Messenger, a first-party messaging solution that the company says is used to send over 10 billion messages every day, to Android and iOS. The company is hardly the first to turn to messaging this year -- the category has grown increasingly popular over the last year -- and BlackBerry Messenger's expansion could help lower BlackBerry's dependence on its own hardware. It also might have been bigger news a few years ago, before WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and a slew of other apps attracted millions of users uninterested in switching.
BlackBerry is playing catch-up with Apple, Samsung, and Google, and seems to be struggling to reconcile that fact with its former glory. The company's products no longer have a monopoly on the business elite's pockets, are no longer representative of true innovations, and are, for all their advances, rooted in the smartphone market of the past.
The company needs to get better at communicating -- or even figuring out -- what its products are and who they are for before it can cast the perception that it's left its prime behind. It isn't enough for BlackBerry to hire Alicia Keys and keep plodding along the same course it has been for the last few years. It's time for the company to consider what it means to be BlackBerry instead of following the ghost of Research in Motion.