Where only a few years ago the “Crackberry” was the hippest device in the North American market, today BlackBerry Ltd. is losing subscribers and stock value at alarming rates. The company is casting about for a buyer. On Monday it announced it had signed a letter of intent from Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. worth about $4.7-billion, while still courting other potential buyers. All in all, this is not a glorious moment for Canada’s faded tech darling, but it is instructive. BlackBerry’s circumstances are vivid proof that tech companies, no matter how revolutionary their trademark product is, will suffer if they do not evolve rapidly.
Remember the PalmPilot? A handheld electronic agenda, it was the device du jour in the late-1990s. Today it is a relic of personal technology’s Precambrian era, displayed in the museum fossil case alongside the brick-like Motorola phones made famous in the film Wall Street, those colourful Nokia 5110s with their vestigial antennae, and the hinged jaw of the flip phone.
In the telescoped evolution of the smartphone, each of these devices had its moment in the sun and then disappeared. Each was overtaken by new products that adapted the old, the new and the next to create expectations in consumers about what a smartphone can do. BlackBerries ruled the world briefly, but their maker failed to see that future growth lay in the consumer market and in social media, not in the e-mail-obsessed business world.
When BlackBerry tried to adapt, it did so too slowly. It took years instead of the requisite months to launch an operating system that competed with the dominant players. Its corporate DNA was as unevolved as its products, and now the world has passed it by – even though its newest products can do virtually all the same things a Samsung or Apple smartphone can do.
BlackBerry hopes to be taken private by a buyer so that it can focus on developing its valuable and respected secure e-mail systems, instead of on the constant release of updated consumer products that the stock markets demand. It’s a reasonable plan, but it is also the best the company can aspire to. We can still hope that people will not be asking, Remember the BlackBerry?