This week I’m at BlackBerry Live, formally known as BlackBerry World. A year ago at this same event, a lot of folks thought it was the swan song for the company. They clearly were wrong. This is one of the largest events of its type so far this year and the excitement going into the keynote was almost in line with an Apple event with one difference: This product is clearly about business.
This is where smartphones started; for some strange reason the company took a hard turn towards entertainment. But BlackBerry’s clear plan it to angle it back and its differentiating strategy is productivity, security and speed.
BlackBerry has come up with an elegant product design similar to, in the Z10, the iPhone, but key differences in ports and access that make the product more flexible, and the Q10 returning to the firm’s roots with a keyboard. It is interesting to note that the Q10 has evidently been sold out since release.
Since I’m writing this during the opening CEO keynote, I’ll cover that and give you a sense of what it was like to be here.
At the start of the keynote, there was a product surprise: the Q5. Targeted at emerging markets, this is a small smartphone with a built-in keyboard. Coming in colors like red, white, black and even pink, this new device appears to be a cost-reduced model, which is critical to markets that struggle with smartphone prices.
It is interesting to note that there is a very large contingent of folks from South America at this show and these folks appear to be some of BlackBerry’s most loyal fans. When this phone was launched, the audience roared in response, clearly very pleased at this surprise announcement.
Mobile-only focus goes to the core of what BlackBerry has created with this new platform, pointing out that BlackBerry is the only vertically integrated company that is focused first and foremost on mobile. Pointing out that it doesn’t have the same difficulties and conflicts as firms that started with desktop products.
In looking at the show floor, what really seems to make the difference is the support of business app builders and companies. SAP, IBM and other enterprise-class companies dominate the crowded floor of app vendors pushing their wares. I go to a lot of shows and generally the vendor floor is often very crowded. When I walked this floor, actually pushed through the floor, there was literally sanding room only. The place was packed and it wasn’t small.
One of the coolest demonstrations during the keynote was a beautiful black convertible Bentley. A car that was turned into a showcase of what could be done with the phone and, in car with QNX, the basis for the BlackBerry 10 and widely used in cars today. They then went through a demonstration of enhanced navigation and audio, but the most interesting was videoconferencing in the car and the connection with the stereo microphones with the car’s audio system. This means speakers talking over the phone are positioned right and left through the speakers in the car.
For safety, the video blanks when the car is moving and then resumes when the car stops. The car is connected to the BlackBerry hub and software updates to the car, for navigation maps, for instance, are delivered in much the same way you would on the phone. No more dealer trips for updates because they happen in the background automatically.
The power of this demonstration is that, tied together, the car platform and the car create a far more seamless experience than either can alone. They drove the car off and on the stage, and, damn, that car is quiet.
Given BlackBerry sells into the automotive industry, it is clear that it is starting to leverage this connection and had the head of R&D for Mercedes-Benz in Palo Alto (California) step onto the stage and present on what is coming, given it uses QNX in its cars. He was clearly reticent to talk about future cars but he implied that Mercedes plans to lead in providing more of a smartphone-like experience in future cars, increasingly tied to the cloud and to the devices drivers carry.
However, Mercedes has significant concerns surrounding security and car management, which is apparently the reason it chose QNX as its operating platform.
To talk about this, they brought out BlackBerry’s new COO, who has been on the job for only 9 months. He highlighted that his focus was to execute and increase customer and partner loyalty. He testified that he had, at the request of its enterprise customers, doubled down on security and device management.
These customers are mostly concerned about TCO (total cost of ownership) and, in this surprisingly hostile world, the security over both corporate and personal information. In a number of regions, IT can be held responsible not only if corporate information is lost, but also if the employee’s personal information is lost on a corporate device.
At the event, they launched BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10.1 and this platform covers not only BlackBerry devices, but Android and iOS devices as well. He closed with a customer testimonial, surprisingly from IBM, which has deployed 500 devices on trial and will be expanding that trial to 2,000 users and spoke to the high integration it was able to create with the phone and IBM services.
One interesting side comment is I don’t recall seeing this much geographic diversity in a presentation; every executive appears to come from a different part of the world.
BlackBerry had a ton of issues: too many brands, too many (often conflicting) campaigns, and the company was clearly wasting money massively. The current CMO is executing a strategy that is far leaner and far more focused. The company and product brands were merged and the programs massively simplified. The campaigns are targeted at hyper-connected ambitious professionals.
BlackBerry wants to be the product used by business leaders and those who want to be business leaders. This is a tight focus on a well-defined segment of influential people. They established a group of fans called BlackBerry Elite and position those fans against the Apple fan base and provide these BlackBerry fans with unique support and engagement.
Apple has often seemed to take its powerful fan base for granted, while BlackBerry is apparently focused on taking advantage of this mistake. It is aggressively turning its fans into part of the advocacy and sales process. Going beyond this, it has executed on a strategy called “Keep Moving” and recruited a number of celebrities to drive programs related to the phone.
Replicating a best practice, they showcased one of the company’s running ads -- this one on the Keep Moving effort and the balance between work and play.
Alicia Keys stepped on stage and once again showcased that her role as Global Creative Director wasn’t in name only. Her focus was to help the company play a significant role with women by helping make the device more relevant to women who represent the majority of BlackBerry users and that they are embracing mobile devices more aggressively than men. She attested that BlackBerry is committing to raising women into executive roles in technology.
I continue to find it fascinating that where you truly see leadership in this effort is in companies run by men but not in companies run by women -- a surprising discord. Dell is the other firm aggressively working to promote women executives in business and I wonder if there is a partnership in this regard between BlackBerry and Dell in the future.
This is BlackBerry’s iTunes. It has nothing to do with music, but just as iTunes is an Apple core service, BBM is BlackBerry’s communications-focused key service advantage. Sixty million users exchanging 10B messages a day use this service. Faster and potentially more secure than alternatives, BlackBerry launched Channels, a service that socially connects people to their brands.
Speaking to this was one of the leading F1 drivers for the Mercedes, MIG and PETRONAS team. BlackBerry also sponsors this team and he spoke to the potential of this new service, which will commercially launch this summer. The big news is that, also this summer, it will take BBM to Android and iOS and offer it for free to these platforms. (A lot of sinister laughing in the audience behind me; it appears BlackBerry is going to war). It’ll start with messaging and roll out the rest of the features throughout the year. So watch this space as this could be the firm’s most powerful play.
What really comes through as a clear differentiator for BlackBerry is how tightly focused it is on a well-identified audience of professionals. It has gone further to identify with its tightly targeted customer base of professionals and is going further to embrace women more than any other firm in its space. Recognizing, embracing and supporting your customers is a core practice of some of the strongest companies in history and the fact that BlackBerry is following this best practice goes a long way towards explaining why this company is apparently roaring back into the market. The company has rediscovered its heart and voice, and it’s back baby. It’s back.