The sales executive at a retail store in Delhi stopped the BlackBerry Priv in my hand and asked if he could see it – the media have the device before many retailers do. He held it in his hand, slid out the keyboard, smiled with a touch of sadness, and muttered:
“What a company they were, sir. What a brand! Business phone ke baare mein socha to dimaag mein turant naam aata tha – BlackBerry! (Whenever we used to think of a business phone, the name that used to flash across our minds was BlackBerry),” he said.
I nodded. It’s a sentiment one has been hearing for a couple of years now, ever since the second coming of the brand did not quite make it past the take-off stage. It seemed to be the all too familiar tale of an established brand that did not take newcomers seriously enough and got hammered by the winds of change. I was about to say something to that tune when the executive handed me back the phone, with a remark:
“They were doing so well. Saala itna badalney ki kya zaroorat thi? (What was the (expletive) need to change so much)”
His words gave me reason to pause. And think. For, when viewed in retrospective, the Canadian company has not exactly fought shy of change. It might not have responded as swiftly or as effectively to change as some of its contemporaries did, but respond it did. Consider the following if you will:
While the likes of Palm, iMate and to an extent, Nokia, struck to the tried and tested, BlackBerry did try out a few design innovations even when it was a force to be reckoned with. The leather back of the first Bold, the experiment with the pearl shaped trackball, the short-lived flip form factor, the slide out QWERTY keyboard, the touchscreen display that gave a physical keyboard-like were all indications that this was a company that was not tied down to a particular design philosophy. The Passport and Priv do not represent a radical design departure for BlackBerry, but a continuation of a willingness to experiment.
2. The touchscreen
Popular tech myth might have you believe that the likes of BlackBerry were slow to respond to the touchscreen revolution spearheaded by the iPhone, but the fact is that BlackBerry had its first all-touch device out within a month of the first Android phone hitting the stands. And it was a rather interesting take on the touchscreen – the BlackBerry Storm came with a touchscreen that attempted to recreate the feeling of hitting a ‘real’ button by a display that moved gently when you touched it (BlackBerry called it SurePress technology). No, everyone did not take to it, but at the time of its release, it seemed a much better answer to the iPhone’s touch interface than Android did.
3. The BlackBerry Boys campaign
Was it a masterstroke or suicide? Whatever you call it, BlackBerry’s “we are the BlackBerry Boys” campaign In 2010 has a special place in the world of tech marketing. The campaign highlighted that BlackBerry was no longer the preserve of the enterprise users – the “BlackBerry Boys” as they were termed – but could be used by any user. It was a brave effort to go mainstream, not least because it poked fun at its core audience (the BlackBerry Boys were shown as serious, formal suit wearing executives as compared to fun-loving mainstream users). At the time of its launch we had asked a Lenovo executive if they could think of doing something similar for their ThinkPad range – she looked at us if we had lost our minds. If that does not tell you the scale of the change attempted by BlackBerry, nothing will.
4. The tablet experience
While most other players initially responded to Apple’s iPad by stretching Android (which has not exactly tablet-friendly – some would say it STILL is not) over larger display devices, BlackBerry tried something totally different by bringing out a totally new interface and OS for its tablet, the PlayBook. It was pretty powerfully specced too with a browser that was almost as good as a Windows desktop one, although some never forgave the company for forcing them to pair it with a BlackBerry phone initially to access some services.
5. The UI Tweaks
Perhaps no UI has been given such a working over as BlackBerry’s UI, which was first given more colorful and large icons, made touch and type friendly, and then yanked right into touch territory with BlackBerry Tablet OS and then BlackBerry 10. And it was not just an attempt to make buttons touch-friendly – BlackBerry’s all touch interface came with a number of innovative touches. The swipe to close an app gesture in Windows 8 and 10 was first seen in BlackBerry Tablet OS! And well, as this is being written, BlackBerry has now tried its hand at Android too.
6. Accommodating Android
Which of course brings us to Android itself – many had felt that BlackBerry should have gone for the OS instead of using its own OS for touch devices, as Android had the better interface and apps. BlackBerry tried to bridge the app gap by first supporting installation of Android apps on BlackBerry 10 devices using APKs, and then by including Amazon’s Android App Store on its devices. It finally moved totally to Android with the Priv.
So, well, BlackBerry did not exactly display the sort of stubbornness that some other brands did when it came to change. In fact, it seemed quite willing to change to accommodate user preferences. So where did it go wrong? Well, we think where the company did stumble, however, was in its refusal to carry change through – it was almost as if it would dip its toes daintily in the lake of change, but stop well short of taking the plunge. So the touchscreen of the Storm was never quite optimized to the extent it could have been, there was only one flip phone, the PlayBook was not improved to the extent it could have been and at the time of writing, it does seem that the Passport will be a one-off in terms of design.
In short, BlackBerry did come to the change party, but often arrived a tad late. And often chose not to stay. Would it have been better off staying at home, as the sales executive suggested, in familiar surroundings, fostering friendships with folk it knew well and who trusted it? We will never know. But whatever you say of BlackBerry, don’t ever say it feared change.