The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn’t. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments. The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security. It was a closed system, running on its own network. The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users. So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.
This pattern—of winning over business and government markets and then reaching consumers—is a time-honored one. The telegraph was initially taken up mainly by railroads, financial institutions, and big companies. The telephone, though it became popular with consumers relatively quickly, was first used principally as a business tool. The typewriter’s biggest users were offices. The Internet originated in the military-industrial complex, and first found an audience among academics and scientists. The personal computer, though popular with hobbyists early on, came to market dominance only once I.B.M. introduced models targeted squarely at businesses. Historically, new technologies have been very expensive—when phone service was introduced in New York, it cost the equivalent of two thousand dollars a month—and so early adopters have generally been companies that could make (or save) money by using them. (It’s telling that the biggest exception to the business-first pattern was television, where the business applications were less obvious.) In 2006, it looked to R.I.M. as if the story of the smartphone market would echo the story of the telegraph.
It didn’t. In fact, even as the BlackBerry was at the height of its popularity, we were entering the age of what’s inelegantly called the consumerization of I.T., or simply Bring Your Own Device. In this new era, technological diffusion started to flow the other way—from consumers to businesses. Social media went from being an annoying fad to an unavoidable part of the way many businesses work. Tablets, which many initially thought were just underpowered laptops, soon became common among salesmen, hospital staffs, and retailers. So, too, with the iPhone and Androids. They’ve always been targeted at consumers, and tend to come with stuff that I.T. departments hate, like all those extraneous apps. Yet, because employees love them, businesses have adapted (and the iPhone and Androids have upgraded security to make themselves more business-friendly). As a result, the iPhone and Androids now control more than half the corporate mobile market.
Consumerization has been disastrous for R.I.M., because the company has seemed clueless about what consumers want. R.I.M. didn’t bring out a touch-screen phone until long after Apple, and the device that it eventually launched was a pale imitation of the iPhone. Although the BlackBerry brand name was once seen as a revolutionary success, over time R.I.M.’s product line became bewilderingly large, with inscrutable model names. If you’re a consumer, do you want the 8300 or the seemingly identical 8330? And the BlackBerry’s closed system has left R.I.M. ill equipped for a world in which phones and tablets are platforms for the whole app ecosystem.
The consumerization of I.T. has deep economic and social roots and is unlikely to go away. Technological innovation has dramatically lowered the cost of computing, making it possible for large numbers of consumers to own powerful new technologies at reasonably low prices. (Apple’s products seem pricey, but despite the weak economy it has sold more than a hundred million iPhones and more than forty million iPads.) The workplace is changing, too. The barrier between work and home has been eroded, and if people are going to have to be constantly connected they want at least to use their own phones. Companies have quickly come to love consumerization, too: a recent study by the consulting firm Avanade found that executives like the way it keeps workers plugged in all day long. And since workers often end up paying for their own devices, it can also help businesses cut costs. One way or another, consumers are going to have more and more say over what technologies businesses adopt. It’s a brave new world. It’s just not the one that the BlackBerry was built for. ♦
I'm a multi-disciplinary designer-strategist at HP. My passion is whole product design: the seamless integration of HW+SW+Web to deliver compelling experiences to users. I'm currently swimming upstream to bring Web 2.0-style community participation to HP's consumer printing business.