BlackBerry largely came to market as an enhanced pager company with an idea that now seems obvious: that pagers should be bi-directional and be able to send messages back. Even today, most think of BlackBerry as a largely failed smartphone firm relegated to the dustbin, along with PALM. In fact, while BlackBerry’s phone lines have certainly thinned, the company is nearly done with a full transition from a hardware-focused company to a software focused company, with the broadest and most secure client management solution in market. Its problem isn’t product; it is image.
This inability to see companies as they are, and instead lock into companies as they once were, is problematic, not only from the standpoint of the vendor, but from the standpoint of the buyer. If you look at firms like HP, Dell and Lenovo, the firms are massively different today than they once were, just like BlackBerry, yet in most cases our perceptions haven’t changed as much as they should have.
Technology Industry Changes
Virtually every surviving technology vendor has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. Apple went from being primarily a PC vendor to being primarily a phone vendor. Dell went from being primarily a PC vendor to the largest enterprise vendor in the market. HP isn’t even one vendor, splitting into two, each with a very different customer and product focus. Lenovo went from being a China-only PC vendor to being the only global vendor that spans smartphones to servers.
Each has advantages and disadvantages. For instance, Apple is and will remain a power with smartphones, but is expected to continue to divest in PCs, and is executing a strategy to turn the iPad into a PC replacement product. So you’d want to invest with it in areas where it remains strategic and limit investment in areas where it is has moved or is moving from.
What fascinates me about BlackBerry is that it has largely moved from being a hardware vendor to being a software vendor. This is a very rare pivot. HP tried to do this and didn’t even make it down this path a year before the CEO leading the effort was fired. Sun tried this and failed as a company and now resides as a hardware unit within Oracle, which remains largely a software vendor. The reason this is so difficult is that the core skills of a software vendor and a hardware vendor are vastly different.
Currently, BlackBerry is the only vendor that starts under the operating system, granted only on Android phones, to effectively prevent root kits, and then manages up through the stack on both major PC and smartphone platforms. Being separate from the platform vendors allows it to work better in heterogeneous environments than vendors that build the platforms.
So the company has made a massive, and in terms of success, very unique pivot. But how does it fix its image, moving from being seen as a failed hardware vendor to a viable software vendor?
The Power of the Internet
What BlackBerry is executing is an interesting strategy of generating post after post on both its successes in the new space and its new focus. This is a volume game. It reminds me of my first, and likely most interesting, advertising professor. He argued that, assuming you have the time, the best way to change a perception is through massive repetition. If you can confront someone often enough with data that indicates a changed view, eventually the individual will alter their perception to accept the new idea. For example, both of the candidates for president in the recent election had their images massively changed, largely because they each deployed a similar repetitive strategy. Donald Trump’s efforts were more successful because they tended to be simple and irritating. So the most effective method is a combination of simplicity and repetition.
The posts can be found on the Inside BlackBerry blog. For the most part, they showcase the new software-centric BlackBerry, along with some interesting topics like the unique security needs of legal offices.
Wrapping Up: Watch and Learn from BlackBerry’s Pivot
To net this out, the reason I think major pivots like the one BlackBerry is completing fail is that the firm doesn’t work to pivot the image in line with the internal changes, and the complexity of the firm slows the process excessively. BlackBerry was a relatively simple company and it’s now working aggressively to change its image, which is allowing it to showcase far more success than its predecessors. Since every company will need to pivot, not just once but multiple times, over the course of its life in order to survive, watching and learning from BlackBerry is not only important if you need its solution but important because, eventually, you may want to emulate and improve on its process.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+