BlackBerry suffers the nerds' revenge

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I’m actually a relatively late adopter of technological trends, particularly in mobile computing. Many of my real-life friends had PalmPilots and cell phones back in the 90s. I was a little jealous of the PalmPilots, but never enough to part with the money (which was quite a bit back then!). I only invested in a cell phone when I moved to the USA in the mid-naughts, partly to satisfy a superstitious belief on the part of some family members that a cell phone talisman would protect me from muggers and gang violence in the Dangerous Land of Danger that was the USA, and because dealing with US land-line carriers was [shudder] even worse than the cell carriers.

But it was only in 2008 that I got anything more interesting than the very basickest phones. A BlackBerry Curve with an unlimited internet plan. It was only half an hour with it, hurriedly charging it in a restaurant a few minutes after buying it, and it was like I could no longer remember the lifetime before when I didn’t have such a thing. Did I ever live without continuous email and browser access? How strange and primitive. (I realize that this may not be the right crowd to present this as a good thing, heh.)

Since then I have stuck with BlackBerry through the purchase of a Bold — and then I became a very early adopter of the BB Q10. The reaction from most of my habitual early-adopter real life friends, through the years, has been “WHY???” Not surprisingly, most of them either use the best Android phones or the iPhone, and you’d think that I’d be an Android sort of Vala (I use Linux mostly on my home and work machines), but I’m not. The truth is, I mostly use my computers for the production and consumption of text, and then maybe the odd YouTube meme, but games, etc? Hardly ever. So what I want in a smartphone is an internet-connected text editor, and BB, at least in its old incarnation — prior to BB10, and we’ll get to this — was and is unbeaten as a text-editing line of devices.

So: most of you probably haven’t failed to notice that the news for BlackBerry (neĆ© RIM) has been, uh, not great. As a consumer hardware company, its days are probably numbered, unless a whole lot of stars align. The reasons for this are many, some of which stem from the fact that its status as a cell phone hardware company was sort of accidental, something into which it lucked, accidentally squashing Palm (another long story), but to which it did not fully adapt. A common complaint from BB fanpeople, myself included, is the simply clueless and inept marketing.

But there’s one point about marketing on which I like to focus: it’s all well and good to spend a lot of money and time on ads and suchlike, but you have to know who you’re marketing to. And the answer is that, in the long run, it isn’t directly the end consumer that matters in the smartphone business. The end consumer is actually the tip of an inverted pyramid of very many other markets and entities. And one key target market for general-purpose computing hardware (which smartphones really are) are the people who develop software, and for those people, the tone and tempo is very much set by the tastes of Silicon Valley male 20-somethings — and, heh, older people who want to be young male 20-somethings — who are the early adopters and producers of high-tech content (apps, but not only apps) and well as buzz and “tech journalism” and all that.

So this is where I sort of had the final sense that BlackBerry was running out the clock: when I was reading Charles Stross’ novel The Fuller Memorandum, which is a sort of SF/fantasy/horror/spy-thriller/comedy combo in Stross’ “Laundry” series (my bold):

I pull out my phone and look at it in distaste. It’s a cheap Motorola jobbie with a pay-as-you-go SIM, and its major virtues are that it’s small and it makes phone calls. I bought it a year and a half ago when word went round that IT Services were threatening to inflict Arseberries on us along with a centralized work directory, and start billing for personal calls. The rumor turned out to be unfounded but I kept the phone (and the PDA I wangled Andy into signing off on) because between them they did a better job than the old Treo, and besides, all smartphones are shit these days. It’s the one industry where progress is going backwards in high gear, because the yakking masses would rather use their phones as car navigation systems and cameras than actually make phone calls or read email.

About the only smartphone that doesn’t stink like goose shit is the JesusPhone. But I’ve steadfastly refused to join the Cult of Jobs ever since I first saw the happy-clappy revival tent launch; it brought back painful memories of a junior management training course the late and unlamented Bridget sent me on a few years ago. Nothing can possibly be that good, even though the specifications look rather nice on paper, right?

You know how this is going to end…

The book was published in 2010 and riffs continuously off of geek culture references, and Stross’ gave voice to the feeling that many of my friends and professional colleagues had about BlackBerry. BlackBerry was what was imposed from on high, the darling of bastard sysadmins and corporate security departments and worst of all, borne like talismans of power by the suits, the parasitic corporate skimmers who thought mistakenly that they did Important Bizniss and gave the orders. People only marginally higher on the totem pole than sociology students, vegans, and labour agitators, other people who aspire to tell people what to do and not leave them alone to create.

Worse still, where BB did make it in the consumer market, it made it with that other stereotypical enemy of the young male nerd, the teenage girl. Need I say more? (I know and knew lots of female geeks so I don’t relate to the feeling, but a perusal of reddit tells me that this current is strong.) BB’s marketing strategy against the introduction of the iPhone didn’t help: “Tools Not Toys”?? And later “Amateur Hour is Over”?? Honestly? It went against everything that the Silicon Valley grassroots believes it stands for: the complete fusion of work and play, the victory of the dilettante. And, it’s turning out, the dilettante’s smartphone OS, Android, is winning the battle.

This all left BB/RIM with a Mount Everest of karmic debt when it came to the tech nerd segment. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear to me that BlackBerry could ever have truly overcome this mountain. Unlike Google or Apple or Samsung or …, RIM just didn’t have another major business to make the investment in a huge pivot. It needed to serve the needs of its existing base who, in a sense, dwindled a little too slowly. When it did, it came out with its BBOS 10…which, while being a technically very good and innovative try, has not been rapidly adopted by the existing user base. It’s not similar enough, you see, and actually the lack of the trackpad reduces its value as a handheld text editor.

But belated realization that the nature of BlackBerry concept was alienating app developers drove BB to make a break with its past…which has not been rewarded by adoption by third-party developers. They’ve just not been able to convince that they are now a “play” phone, and who needs another work-as-play phone anyway, when we have iOS and Android?

(To some extent this bad karma is now working against Microsoft who both incurred and staved off the reckoning by its aggressive monopolism, but Microsoft has other businesses and has a better chance of pulling the rabbit out of the hat.)

I’m not about to abandon my Q10, and may in fact continue to buy replacement BB products off of eBay if they stop making them — because no one makes a serious QWERTY keyboard phone anymore. And I’ve used a clever touchscreen keyboard replacement on Android and didn’t like it at all. I don’t like post-hoc autocorrect, it’s for people who grew up using spellcheckers, and there’s lots of reasons why you’d want a physical keyboard. I’ve read smartphone forums where people have asked for them on other platforms, and there seems to be quite a bit of demand — but people would rather live without than buy a BB phone. Nonetheless, the nerds have spoken: you will live with a touchscreen, you will play Candy Crush, and you will like it.

In the meantime, Canada once again proves that it is a nation of hewers of wood and drawers of…bitumen. A more liberal Saudi Arabia.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on September 7, 2013 1:25 PM.

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