01:52 PM
Randy Siegel
Randy Siegel

BlackBerry: The Fax Machine Of Its Era

BlackBerry liberated executives from their desks. But the company's focus on messaging relegated it to a device that failed to keep pace with innovation

With the news of BlackBerry's proposed sale to Fairfax Financial last week, it's worth a look back at a company and a singular device that revolutionized the mobile worker forever -- empowering millions to be more productive away from the office. The mobile industry and end users everywhere owe the company a debt of gratitude for ushering in the mass adoption of mobile email and presaging the powerful smartphone devices of today.

Unfortunately, the company's myopic focus on personal information management (PIM) and messaging aimed mostly toward business users precluded the company's ability to accurately foresee the consumerization of IT phenomenon and, once it had taken place, respond in a nimble fashion to the new business realities of the marketplace.

Category Creator

When Research In Motion (RIM) introduced the BlackBerry in 1999, it was a game changer, a category creator, providing a turnkey solution that represented the first massively successful email appliance. The device found a very lucrative niche in the workplace by effectively extending enterprise mail for businesses and government out to mostly white-collar executives, suddenly giving them a way to stay connected and mobile all at the same time. The secret to RIM's success was in leveraging enterprise mail servers such as Microsoft Exchange and IBM Notes already running inside the enterprise.

RIM's success was cemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when BlackBerrys were among the few devices that worked when other connectivity was cut off or severely constrained. There were a few reasons why BlackBerry devices worked when others didn't -- notably because those devices rode the old Mobitex wireless packet-switched data network that was not affected by the disaster. RIM no longer uses Mobitex and instead relies on GSM and CDMA networks.

[ Local governments are responding to demand for mobile apps. See How NYCDOT Put 'Mobile First' Dev To Work. ]

BlackBerry users loved the innovative hardware keyboard and built-in messaging service -- BBM -- to make the device a must-have accessory for professionals in the new millennium. People became addicted to the device, and the ability to check and respond to email and texts from anywhere and at anytime, day and night. The term "crackberry" was added to our popular lexicon as that addiction spread, as was the notion of BlackBerry thumb fatigue.

More importantly, government and particularly Wall Street loved the device as it sped communication and made decisions happen more rapidly. The BlackBerry became the device that everyone had to carry. The federal government purchased millions of BlackBerry devices as Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) over the years. There continues to be a huge legacy of devices that are still being used across the government and related security-conscious industries.

No Apps Here

But BlackBerry's dominance in mobile mail was interpreted mistakenly by its management as a proxy for dominance in mobile writ large. And for a while, that seemed true. People became so dependent on their BB devices that many other innovative products and applications were largely ignored for a decade or more. During this period, competitors such as Palm, Handspring and Microsoft's Pocket PC/Windows Mobile introduced business applications to complement email on the go. Mobile email was viewed as a must-have functional requirement -- table-stakes as it were -- in order to effectively compete for business end users.

Over time, though, mobile email started to turn into a commodity, especially once the Exchange ActiveSync protocol was widely adopted by many manufacturers. In addition, because of the way BlackBerry was architected, it was essentially a "bolt-on" or "aftermarket" product, designed to interoperate with mail servers (including BlackBerry's own Network Operations Center). It was by definition a turnkey, proprietary approach -- but one that was cut off from other applications, making it vulnerable to newer technologies. BlackBerry's focus on one thing -- email -- allowed it to succeed fantastically for a long while.

Unfortunately, as BlackBerry was achieving critical mass with its device, its management neglected to adequately address the big picture and the emergence of other enterprise applications such as CRM, logistics, simple Office document collaboration, spreadsheets, presentation software, and more. Perhaps even more ominous was the coming tidal wave of consumer-focused applications, first ushered in a big way by the twin announcements in 2007 of Apple's iPhone and Google's Open Handset Alliance.

New entrants to the mobile space such as the iPhone, using Apple's own iOS operating System in 2007, made clear that the focus would now be on applications other than mail. Along the way, Apple and Android were also able to commoditize email in a manner that Palm and Pocket PC/Windows Mobile could not.

In many ways, BlackBerry's fate parallels that of the fax machine.

Faxing enabled (and still enables) individuals to use telephone lines to transmit important text documents to people from across the globe. Facsimile machines sped communications, increased business velocity, improved return on investment, cut costs and were responsible (and still are) for the quick closure of major business transactions the world over.

In retrospect though, the fax machine might be more properly viewed as a transitional technology; something that at one point in time offered much value but was eventually outmoded because it was limited in what it can do. Like the BlackBerry, fax machines amounted to a "bolt-on" to an already extant infrastructure -- in this case POTS phone lines. The fax is dependent on both phone lines and a modem (modulator-demodulator) that modulates analog signals to encode digital information and, on the other end, demodulates that signal which amounts to essentially a decoding of the information.

Just as the BlackBerry is dependent on existing corporate infrastructure, the fax is dependent on telephone system infrastructure. The resulting technology is clever and works per se, but is ultimately limited because it is not an open system that is holistic in nature and/or flexible enough to deal with additional applications.

Because of its propriety architecture and limited capabilities to interoperate, BlackBerry seems destined to join past IT innovation heavyweights such as Wang, DEC, Palm, AOL and many others.

The siloed nature of BlackBerry's system made it non-interoperable (or at least not easily interoperable) with many commonly used enterprise applications -- including those from software heavyweights Microsoft, SAP and Oracle -- including SharePoint or Lync, to say nothing of applications developed in-house to support businesses and government agencies.

To be fair, the company did embrace the Internet and offered a mobile browser that allowed BlackBerrys to function like thin clients for certain types of business applications. However, it was too little and too late by the time Apple and Android introduced larger-sized screens and multiple consumer applications (fat clients) on the device, rather than simply relying on a small-screen-sized browser.

The irony is, in 2013, the majority of those accessing the Internet do so on a mobile device that in many ways came of age because of BlackBerry. BlackBerry isn't alone in having been displaced. The music, movie and television industries have all been turned upside down by the likes of Apple iTunes and Google Play, as well as others who sell content to be consumed specifically on smartphone devices. The days of the mobile device as second-class citizen are over.

BlackBerry is by no means finished in government and other highly regulated industries. Many in government were pleased to hear that BlackBerry is in discussions to be acquired by a company based in a friendly country. Still, the uncertainty about BlackBerry's future ownership has caused most government agencies to proactively pursue BlackBerry "contingency plans" that mostly call for the widespread deployment of Android and iOS devices. Companies like Samsung have had the foresight to focus on a much more robustly secure instantiation of Android with its SAFE and Knox devices. (Full disclosure: The company I work for -- Fixmo -- is partly owned by Samsung.)

Whatever BlackBerry's fate may be, its contribution to the culture in changing the work-life paradigm will endure. In essence, BlackBerry was the first "must-have" device that made people ubiquitously connected and available at all times. It ushered in the "anytime, anywhere" paradigm that had been foreseen for many years. The BlackBerry device brought about the modern smartphone, and it changed life and work forever -- for better or worse.

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