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John Chen, interim CEO and executive chairman of BlackBerry, is pictured in 2009. BlackBerry announced Chen as interim CEO on Nov. 25, 2013, replacing Thorsten Heins. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
John Chen, interim CEO and executive chairman of BlackBerry, is pictured in 2009. BlackBerry announced Chen as interim CEO on Nov. 25, 2013, replacing Thorsten Heins. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Dear John Chen: Here’s how to start fixing BlackBerry Add to ...

John S. Chen
Interim CEO
BlackBerry Ltd.
2200 University Ave. E
Waterloo, ON, Canada

Dear John:

Welcome to Canada! Or rather, welcome to the Region of Waterloo International Airport, as I understand you’re going to be flying in from California on a regular basis to your new job.

Some people get huffy about this. They think that to turn around BlackBerry, you need to spend your time on the ground, in the office, not jetting across the continent for the weekend. And those who aren’t raising an arched eyebrow at your 4,100-kilometre commute are grumpy about your pay package, worth about $90 million the day you signed on, and which could, in theory, still pay you tens of millions of dollars if you fail.

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Those people are what I like to call “wrong.” If you can save this company, you are worth every dollar. In fact, you’re probably worth $90 million even if you just simply do a better job than the last CEO, the German guy whose name I’ve already forgotten. The most memorable thing he did was change the company’s name from Research In Motion to BlackBerry. He should have changed it to Sisyphus.

But never mind him. Let’s get to the good news. BlackBerry still has loyalists. I know, because I’m one of them. The other day—no word of a lie—my six-year-old looked at my phone and informed me: “BlackBerrys are not very popular.” I nearly replied, “Listen, son, that may be true, but they will have to pry my BlackBerry Bold 9900 out of my cold, dead fingers.” Then I thought better of my choice of words.

The reason for my affinity to the BlackBerry is simple. As I write this, I have 1,419 unread e-mails. Hundreds more messages will pour in tomorrow. What I really need, aside from a time-management consultant and a shrink, is a wireless device that allows me to type quickly and accurately. It’s a mystery why Apple and Samsung Electronics haven’t developed keyboard phones, but…well, they haven’t, and perhaps that’s why BlackBerry is still here, and it’s certainly why one is in my pocket.

I know a number of businesspeople who feel the same way, but are also baffled by what your company has done lately. One fellow who runs a large amount of private-equity money recently held up his phone to me, also a Bold 9900, running on the old operating system. He said that, after trying the fancy new Q10, he sent it back. It was too hard to use. Another guy who works for a large asset management firm told me that everyone in his office was complaining about the Q10. He had his IT department fix his old one.

Don’t you find that strange, John? All that pain and toil to bring out the BlackBerry 10, years of promises and delays and more promises, and this is the result—millions of unsold phones gathering dust, endless griping about the product, about how nothing works the way you think it should, and just where in the name of Lazaridis is the back button, anyway?

Several months after the BlackBerry 10 line was launched, I had the chance to ask a senior North American telecom executive why they weren’t selling. The executive was adamant that he wouldn’t speak on the record, and just as adamant that the phones were not very good. BlackBerry even managed to mess with (sorry, “re-engineer”) the keyboard.

But he really wants BlackBerry to succeed. The dominance of just two smartphone platforms—Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android—frightens him. And so it should. The latest figures from IDC show that 94% of the smartphones shipped in the third quarter were either Apple or Android. That means the consumer is in the hands of two of the largest companies on Earth.

What are you going to do about it? A lot of pundits have turned thumbs-down on the “business-first” strategy—the idea that BlackBerry should refocus on serving the corporate and government customers on which the company was built. This will fail, they say, because more businesses are now asking (or forcing) their employees to use their personal cellphones for work, so the consumer market will become the business market. Gartner Inc., a tech consulting firm, predicts that by 2017, about half of employers will require their staff to supply their own devices.

Well, that still leaves the other half. So if your plan is to try to fix BlackBerry, rather than break it up—if you want to take a shot at making this company great again—here’s a modest suggestion on how to start. Find 100 executives, bankers, accountants, traders, operations managers, civil servants and politicians who are BlackBerry users. Bring them to Waterloo. And get them to tell you where it all went wrong.

We’re pulling for you, John.

Sincerely,
Derek DeCloet

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