How Apple Killed BlackBerry
Apple found unprecedented mainstream success with the iPod. 1000 songs in our pockets was just the beginning. But Steve Jobs never made the mistake of confusing Apple's products for its business. And he knew the iPod was just a product.
The iPod was the smash hit of its time, to be sure, but time is relentless. Something was coming for it. Something that was more than just a product. A convergence. The phone combined with the mobile internet and, yes, with the MP3 player. An existential threat.
So, Jobs turned Apple towards the iPhone. And, at that moment, that very moment, BlackBerry was ended. We just didn't know it yet.
When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, BlackBerry's co-CEOs couldn't believe it. Not in the way you or I or most people couldn't believe it — how slick the new operating system and its multitouch gestures looked. But literally couldn't believe it as in they thought it wasn't real. Like at all.
The iPhone didn't evolve from the iPod. It inherited iTunes connectivity from the iPod, but it didn't evolve from it. Apple considered making an iPod phone, even had the head of iPod working on a phone as a hedge. But, instead, the iPhone evolved from OS X and a secret multitouch tablet project code-named Purple. It may have started off as a way to cannibalize the iPod before anyone else could, but it ended up being a way to put real apps and the real web in our pockets and in the palms of our hands.
RIM, as BlackBerry was known back then, evolved from the pager. It was meant to be a way for people to get their email on the road. Eventually, it added a keyboard, PIN and BlackBerry Messenger, a proxy browser that would do almost anything to save on data, and J2ME apps. It became the mobile communicator everyone who was in business or wanted to be simply had to have.
So, looking at the iPhone, with no physical keyboard, a display so big it just had to thrash battery life, a full-on web browser that would no doubt wreak havoc on the data networks, and with nothing like BBM — the hook that put that crack in Crackberry — they thought it had to be fake or simply massively ill-conceived.
But, it turned out, BlackBerry was selling keyboards to people who were thirsting for full-screen content. They were selling to IT departments instead of humans in enterprises poised to go BYOD — Bring Your Own Device. They were selling internet accelerators in a world rapidly moving from the equivalent of dial-up to broadband. And they were selling BBM to people who ultimately decided switching chat apps was less painful than doing without everything else.
Increasingly people started carrying an iPhone and a BlackBerry when they had to. And when they didn't, just an iPhone.
Verizon hard passed on the iPhone. And why wouldn't they? They were Verizon and they weren't about to let Steve Jobs dictate terms to them, much less support a device Apple wouldn't even let them see at launch.
Cingular, about to rebrand as the new AT&T, was in a far more precarious position, and willing — or just desperate enough — to take just exactly that kind of risk.
Now, we can make all sorts of jokes about the early years of the iPhone on AT&T, and how the load was so far beyond the network capabilities that many people, many times, couldn't even use their phones as phones.
Having that many customers on the iPhone was a problem for AT&T. But it was a bigger problem for every carrier not named AT&T. And that was especially true for Verizon, which wasn't just losing customers to the iPhone and AT&T, but the best customers who were willing to buy the most expensive phones and plans.
Churn, baby, churn.
So, Verizon went to BlackBerry and demanded an answer to the iPhone. And now.
BlackBerry, jammed up, Photoshopped a few different phone parts together, rushed back to Verizon, and showed them what would, in a terrifyingly short turn-around time, become the BlackBerry Storm.
Yeah, the one without Wi-Fi, and with the entire display mounted as a single, giant, physical button.
Where Google spun on a dime and adapted their modern, Android operating system to more iPhone-like implementations, and Palm and even Microsoft would eventually abandon their legacy operating systems to fizzle out fast while they rebuilt newer, more modern systems, BlackBerry stuck to their Java OS and just tried to stretch it out and adapt it as best as they could.
Now, not everyone could or would switch from Verizon to AT&T just to get the iPhone, so there was real business to be had for whatever not-iPhone Verizon was willing to put its massive weight behind at any given time. Be it the Storm, the Droid, and eventually what became the Galaxy line.
So, the Storm sold well. Too well. With no way to live up to the hype, and problems from design to execution, it soured many of BlackBerry's staunchest supporters and sent them running to AT&T and the iPhone and on to Android phones on Verizon.
BlackBerry had apparently code-named the Storm AK — the Apple Killer. But it turned out to be less than a bandaid, and the bleeding was just getting worse.
Apple had Mac and iPod money. Microsoft had Windows and Office money. Google had AdSense money. Samsung… well, Samsung basically had nation-state level funding. Whether any of their phones were successful or not, went up or down, or would take time to take off, those companies could absorb any losses in a way single business, effectively phone-only companies like BlackBerry or Palm, even Nokia simply couldn't.
What's more, the iPhone was developed in secret. For years. It certainly wasn't fully formed when Steve Jobs dropped it on the world — it didn't even have the App Store yet, MMS, or copy-paste — but it had what really mattered: The interface and experience that made it so compelling. That made everyone who had one eager to show it off, and everyone who didn't and saw it, eager to get one.
But nobody outside Apple — hell, most people inside Apple — never saw the struggles, the thousands of failures that were overcome before the iPhone was even able to be shipped.
The moment Steve Jobs showed the iPhone off, though, every other company suddenly had to contend and compete with it. And very much in public. Every reaction, every step, every misstep, all under a giant, glaring spotlight.
We got to see a bunch of former Apple and iPhone team members, the ones who believed in physical keyboards and WebKit based interfaces and frameworks, go to Palm and birth webOS. We got to see fresh blood at Microsoft eschew the rich textures and photorealism Steve Jobs took from Pixar to make the iPhone more appealing and relatable to the masses, and create the digital authenticity of Windows Phone.
And we got to see BlackBerry realize J2ME wouldn't take them any further, and so buy the real-time QNX operating system, and start work on what would become BB10.
At the time, QNX was being used to run things that absolutely, positively could not fail. Nuclear plants. Submarines. The computer systems in cars. Its whole purpose wasn't to be fast or responsive but to be utterly predictable. It was a perfect machine without anything in the way of a human interface.
Apple also wasn't standing still. Microsoft decided to sacrifice Windows Mobile exclusivity and license Exchange and ActiveSync to Apple. Apple decided to sacrifice the goodwill of its carrier partners by announcing iMessage, and cutting deeply into SMS and MMS revenues, supposedly the most lucrative legal businesses ever devised by humans. With iCloud to just sync it all.
And, just a year earlier, Steve Jobs had taken to the stage once again and introduced the iPad for it all to just sync with.
BlackBerry had dabbled with the idea of a big-screen companion device for its phones, but after seeing the iPad, scrambled to turn it into a full-blown tablet and, what's more, use it to debut what would become BB10. To test it so that the phones could keep flowing until it was all well and cooked.
To help build out the interface, BlackBerry bought the Astonishing Tribe, pixel and experience wizards of the time. But then showed up in suits and ties and minimized and micro-managed every ounce of wizardry out of TAT's designs.
Apple had a single developer platform. So, BlackBerry decided it needed many. Apple wouldn't allow Flash on the iPad. So, BlackBerry decided it had to have that too. Apple had a simple, full-screen interface. So, BlackBerry decided it had to use a webOS style card-based interface.
Everything that the 20% of vocal internet pro users complained was missing from the iPad, BlackBerry embraced. Not considering that the lack of those things was exactly what made the iPad appealing to the other 80%, the mainstream.
It was a critical mistake common to almost every other competing tablet of the time. Which is why so few tablets are now left to compete.
Worse, shipping was proving so difficult that BlackBerry ended up neglecting its only successful product, its phones, just to get the tablet out the door.
The tablet that was meant to show Apple that amateur hour was over — that it was all pro-level business from that point on… that BlackBerry somehow ended up naming the PlayBook.
There would be no PlayBook 2.
BlackBerry 10 eventually made it onto the phones though it was never backported to the tablet. But it was too late. The Playbook didn't just burn out, it burned the phone business as well.
Instead of niching down on what it was best known for, what its customers loved most about it, what truly differentiated it in the market, BlackBerry decided to ship the first BB10 phone without a physical keyboard.
And the traditional BlackBerry phones, which the company kept making, took a turn towards the bizarre with the Passport. Shaped… like a passport. It wasn't a square but it also wasn't the slimmer rectangle every other phone had settled on.
Some tech pundits, the ones perpetually bored by iterative iPhone designs, applauded and encouraged BlackBerry for doing something different. Of course, few if any of them ever intended to actually buy one, or to help BlackBerry cover what listening to the internet instead of their core market cost them.
QNX's founder and CEO, and their vice-president of software, left for Apple. As did a lot of BlackBerry's best and brightest.
Eventually, BlackBerry Messenger ended up being worth more than BlackBerry phones but the company resisted making it multi-platform.
There's this story about Steve Jobs, when his trusted lieutenants came to him and said, if they wanted the iPod to really succeed, they had to put iTunes on Windows. And Jobs said no. But they said Apple had to do it. And Jobs, trusting the people he hired, warned them what the consequences would be if they were wrong, but let them do it anyway.
If not for that, there may not have been an iPhone. At least not like we have now.
BlackBerry chose not to make the same choice, the choice Microsoft had made with ActiveSync years before. BlackBerry chose to keep BBM exclusive to BlackBerry.
Right up until WhatsApp systematically copied every one of its features, took them all cross-platform, and ended up selling to Facebook for $19 billion.
BlackBerry eventually took BBM cross-platform. Of course, because BlackBerry had never imagined a world where people would have more than one device, BBM PINs were never designed to support multiple logins, and all manner of the most ironic workaround imaginable couldn't really fix that, not in time.
But it didn't matter. It was already too late. The world had moved on.
Very few countries have phone businesses. Even fewer have operating systems. With BlackBerry, Canada had a phone business and two operating systems, BBOS and QNX, including BB10.
But, with another new CEO, and not one from the product world but the services and enterprise world, both those things would change.
BlackBerry switched to Android, trying to tie its services and security model to Google's operating system. And they licensed out the brand to TCL who created a couple of keyboard-based phones with the logo for BlackBerry on them, but never quite the soul inside.
Until this week, at least, when TCL announced the end of its license and its BlackBerry phones.
And that's it. That's how BlackBerry ended. Because Steve Jobs could see what would end the iPad and decided to do it himself, and BlackBerry couldn't see what would end the BBM pager, and so were ended instead.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.