John Collins is still a "BlackBerry guy."
Like many business people thumbing out e-mails to clients and employees, the managing director of NeatFreak Group Inc. prefers the BlackBerry's keyboard. He just can't picture himself tapping out all those messages on a glass-touchscreen device like the iPhone.
"I'm not sure the touchscreen is my bailiwick," he admits lightheartedly.
But as someone who influences his firm's technology-buying decisions, it is very much Mr. Collins' bailiwick to understand trends in the wireless market. And he knows that a lot of the people who work for him prefer to use smartphones manufactured by Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and other giants that have clobbered BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. in the marketplace.
NeatFreak, which makes home-organization products such as laundry baskets and shoe racks, has about 60 employees in Canada. Roughly half of them use BlackBerrys. But the company's design team in Lyon, France? They're all on Apple's iPhones. And Mr. Collins, who sits on several international boards and travels constantly, is also well aware that many of his suppliers and clients allow employees to bring their iPhones and Android devices into the workplace.
As RIM prepares for a crucial moment in its history – to launch its new lineup of BlackBerry 10 smartphones next Wednesday – it will be relying on businesses like Mr. Collins's company to, quite literally, buy into its comeback story. Corporate and government clients have long been the cornerstone of RIM's global expansion; they are still the customers most loyal to the BlackBerry, and the most lucrative ones the company has. Analysts estimate that business users number about 20 million people – about one-quarter of RIM's global subscriber base of 79 million users. But they contribute a bigger percentage of its revenues than that, because they tend to buy higher-end phones and pay fees for enterprise software. "They're more valuable to RIM – there's more revenue lines that they contribute to," says Cormark Securities Inc. analyst Richard Tse.
So while BlackBerry 10 is aimed at a mass audience – RIM is buying Super Bowl airtime to promote it – it is business customers who may well decide whether the phones, and the company that is betting its future on them, succeed. The BlackBerry brand has lost so much of its cachet with consumers, it will take a long time to win them back. But if RIM can persuade a large number of those 20 million business clients to upgrade to BB10, it can at least arrest its downward spiral, build a profitable business around its core customers, kill the perception that the BlackBerry is dead, and buy itself more time.
That is a big if. RIM is launching BlackBerry 10 into an altered reality. Many corporations still rely on RIM, of course, but over the past few years, smartphones have become commoditized, and Western consumers' preference for iPhones and Android phones has slowly spilled over into the business world. The delays in BB10 caused some businesses to supplement or replace their aging fleet of BlackBerrys with other, non-RIM devices.
Moreover, the line between business users and consumers has blurred. More companies are adopting "bring your own device policies." This means, instead of buying a BlackBerry for employees, they'll allow them to get their corporate e-mail on their own personal phones, often sharing the cost. That's part of a broader trend that chief information officers call the "consumerization of IT," in which devices, software or trends that are popular among consumers spread to the business world. For CIOs, it means happier and more productive employees if they can use the phone they really want – and it may also lower costs, if workers are buying their own devices.
The stakes for RIM now are much higher than ever. This isn't just a phone; BlackBerry 10 is an entirely new smartphone platform launching in an era of furious smartphone competition. If it fails and perhaps even if it achieves only mild success, RIM may have to explore the more ominous options in its strategic review, including a sale or break up of the company. For months, RIM's top brass has been able to defer the hard questions about the company's future by saying, in essence, "Just wait for BlackBerry 10." That wait is now over.
COUNTING ON BLACKBERRY FANS
Mr. Collins, and his firm, are pretty typical RIM business customers for the new era. He's not exactly going to wait overnight in a mall lineup for a BlackBerry 10 phone. Indeed, he doesn't even want RIM's first, touchscreen BB10 device (instead he plans to wait for the first one with a physical keyboard). And his employees are likely to remain a mix of those who use RIM smartphones and those who avoid them
Still, he's an optimist. Whatever people think of RIM's business, there are still plenty of BlackBerry fans out there. "Apple is better at marketing, but I still think BlackBerry has the better business solution," he says. "As a Canadian, I'm cheering for BlackBerry, not that that's a deciding factor."
RIM now has a diverse set of 130 corporate customers trying BlackBerry 10 devices right now, spanning a number of sectors: financial services, government, health care and other industries. Additionally, more than 1,600 businesses, including Fortune 500 companies, are registered for what RIM calls the BlackBerry 10 "ready program," which essentially prepares companies to deploy RIM's new phones at launch.
Of course, RIM is sowing ground in an different competitive landscape than the one that prevailed even two years ago. Apple executives have boasted of penetrating Fortune 500 companies with their iPhones and iPads.
No one knows that better than chief information officers, the top executives for technology at large businesses.
Catherine Boivie, the founding president of the CIO Association of Canada, recently sent an e-mail out to her executive board, which includes IT decision makers at recognizable firms such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, the Canadian Red Cross and MTS Allstream, asking about BlackBerry 10.
The results of her informal poll show the uphill climb RIM faces.
"Most responses I got back were, 'BlackBerry missed the boat by a year,' " she says. "The year that they delayed the new operating system is costing them. Because BlackBerry was the solution. Now, it's Samsung, which is quite popular. And the iPhone. ... You're talking to an original BlackBerry user. I used the BlackBerry when it was just a pager. But last year I switched to an iPhone."
In its most recent quarter alone, Apple sold a record 47.8 million iPhones – more than half of RIM's global base of 79 million BlackBerry users. In the U.S., where Apple's brand has risen as RIM's as fallen, the trend is pronounced, particularly since corporations tend to replace BlackBerrys with iPhones because of their integration with iPads.
That's what happened at Sanofi SA, a multinational pharmaceutical firm headquartered in Paris that has a global work force of 110,000, with 20,000 of those employees based in the United States.
Sanofi's director of mobility engineering, Brian Katz, has seen a gradual shift away from BlackBerrys as people within the company started using iPhones and Android devices outside of the workplace. He also looked closely at RIM's PlayBook tablet, but was unimpressed by the tablet's inability to function properly without being tethered to a BlackBerry.
"Between the consumerization of IT and everything else, we have migrated from a shop that was primarily BlackBerry, just like everybody else was five years ago, to a shop that is not as much BlackBerry anymore," Mr. Katz said in an interview.
When it comes to the launch of RIM's new BlackBerry 10 phones, he adds, Sanofi will be looking at them, but it's not as if every company – particularly those that now have iPhones in the mix – needs the sort of security that BlackBerrys provide.
"There are industries that for confidentiality, and whatever else, have never strayed from RIM – and those industries are going to look at [BB10] and be fairly happy that they have better-enabled devices," Mr. Katz continues.
"But ... [if] you don't have the same type of [security] requirements that necessitate RIM, are people going to want them in the same force that they want [Apple] and Android? And if people don't want them, what's our overriding reason to go with them?"
But for all the changes to the way businesses deploy smartphones, RIM still has serious swagger when it comes to the corporate world. This week, RIM launched a revamped version of the software that helps businesses manage BlackBerrys. And despite concerns about dwindling, high-margin revenue from the service side of RIM's business, the new software allows businesses to handle iPhones and Android phones. The day before it launched on Wednesday, the venture arm of Samsung Electronics plunged money into Fixmo Inc., a mobile security company with a former RIM executive as chief marketing officer that helps firms deploy multiple devices – in part helping them ditch BlackBerrys. But Peter Devenyi, RIM's senior vice-president for enterprise software, didn't sound too scared when asked about the rising competition.
"We continue to reside in over 90 per cent of the Fortune 500 and continue to be the dominant management platform based on the strength that BlackBerry has enjoyed in enterprises in years gone by," Mr. Devenyi said in an interview, acknowledging that RIM has adapted to "bring your own device" policies. Still, he says, "We do believe that we have the most secure, the most diverse mobile device management platform, supporting more devices, including BlackBerry devices and other devices, natively, than any other provider out there – and doing it better, based on a decade of experience."
WIRELESS OPERATORS ARE KEY
The market still seems to have at least some confidence in a RIM comeback: In the four months leading up to the late January launch date, RIM's stock has nearly tripled from a low of around $6 to just under $18. But Chetan Sharma, an influential U.S. telecoms and device consultant, compares RIM's recent momentum to the expectations around the Windows Phone, which despite strong reviews, attractive devices and an enormous marketing push from Microsoft Corp. and Nokia Corp., has largely failed to gain traction.
"In the U.S. there will probably be slow growth, if any [for RIM]," Mr. Sharma says. "At best, it will be slow. At worst, it will not move the needle, and the decline will continue."
RIM is still more popular than Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Phone software as a business alternative to Apple and Android. In a survey of 256 IT leaders at companies in the U.S., San Francisco-based wireless consultant Maribel Lopez found that 67 per cent of them supported "bring your own device" policies. The BlackBerry still had much more support than the Windows Phone among IT professionals – with 23 per cent of respondents saying they plan to support RIM and only 3 per cent for Microsoft. "Many U.S. CIOs still harbour hopes that RIM will make a comeback," Ms. Lopez says.
And it is important what happens at the wireless operators, as well. Mr. Sharma notes that the success of the new BlackBerrys will depend, to some degree, on how well major carrier such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. push the devices with promotions, subsidized prices and plans for businesses. "Publicly, every operator has said they're excited," Mr. Sharma notes. "But it just comes down to ... whether they push these devices in the market. When you go to the store, will the salespeople be pushing BlackBerrys or not? That question has still to be answered."
There is also a question of RIM muddling its message a bit when it comes to small to medium-sized businesses – those not wooed personally by RIM – who are anticipating the new device. One wireless executive at a major Canadian carrier, who declined to be named because of a business relationship with RIM, said he worried that many business clients were getting a little confused about whether the first BlackBerry 10 phone to launch will have a keyboard.
"I think a lot of their existing, remaining, loyal – particularly business – clients have it because it has a physical keyboard," the executive said. "Their touch keyboard is really kind of cool, you know, it learns how you type and all that, but it is not a physical keyboard. So, if you're somebody who was waiting for the new BlackBerry 10 and you just assumed that it would have a keyboard and now you find out it doesn't, what will that do?"
Of course, bringing out BlackBerry 10 phones and then launching what is likely to be a global marketing blitz is just the beginning for RIM: The devices actually have to perform. And not only that, they have to perform better than iPhones and Androids or people will pass. Alex Buhler, CIO for Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op, is one of those who would need to be convinced. He says MEC – a national co-operative retail chain selling outdoor gear – is 99 per cent iPhones, and its customers are not far behind: The mobile traffic coming to MEC's website is 76 per cent iPhone, 20 per cent Android and only 4 per cent BlackBerry. And MEC is a Canada-wide retailer. Mr. Buhler, who uses an iPhone, says some CIOs have never stopped using BlackBerrys and await the new phones eagerly. But his own view of the situation is at least partly influenced by what his teenage daughter did when he passed down his BlackBerry.
"I had a BlackBerry Bold and I gave it to her – and then she switched to an iPhone," he said in an interview. "You want to cheer for the local team, but the local team has to deliver."
With a report from Rita Trichur