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Writer and philosopher George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This quote has been reworked in popular culture to the very famous saying “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. This has been a statement assigned to many world leaders to avoid repeating the sins of their predecessors. However, I feel that it can also be applied in everyday life and also in business. A knowledge of what worked and did not work in the past is crucial to success in the present and the future.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when a report came out that another company was taking a stab at revitalizing the BlackBerry brand. Like many tech enthusiasts, I have very fond memories of BlackBerry in its golden age but also vividly remember how a string of arrogance and bad decisions from their leadership began to lead to their downfall. As I survey the current smartphone landscape I can’t help but see parallels between BlackBerry and Apple. This brought up a question to me, is the iPhone the next BlackBerry? And more importantly, has Apple learned enough from BlackBerry’s mistakes to avoid the same fate?
Champions of North America
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The smartphone space is one that is dominated by East Asia, especially recently. Almost all of the manufacturing of components and assembly of the modern smartphone occurs in China or the surrounding regions. In recent years, Chinese companies like Oppo, Vivo, Huawei, and Xiaomi have come to prominence. Samsung and LG are two Korean giants that dominate market share across the globe as well. So for consumers in Europe, the United States, and Canada there is a certain appeal that comes with supporting a homegrown brand.
For years, Motorola was beloved for this. Despite having its phones manufactured in China the company in the US was renowned for its midwestern Chicago roots and was championed as an American phone brand. Nokia saw similar success in the early days of cell phones as the champion of Europe along with Ericsson. And in the early days of the smartphone, BlackBerry became the champion of Canada.
Based in Waterloo, Canada, BlackBerry became the default phone choice for many Canadians in the late 2000s. In fact, in 2009 BlackBerry accounted for over 50% of the Canadian smartphone market share. There was a certain level of national pride for Canadians that BlackBerry was their company that was taking on the Asian giants of the age. BlackBerry became a symbol of some level of national pride
Similarly, Apple has become this same symbol of American technological innovation. An American company with its operating system taking on the many foreign companies that use Android. There is a perceived quality from buying Apple when in reality other companies make equally impressive devices. There seems to be a certain refinement aspect to Apple that other companies do not seem to have, which by itself feels more like an American idea. Where other companies will attempt and feature radical new ideas and mechanisms, Apple is content with using a formula that works. A device design philosophy that speaks to many Americans that are less interested in the way new things will be accomplished as opposed to simply getting them done.
There is a practicality to both Apple and BlackBerry. An air that these companies design products for the end-user as opposed to making something innovative for the sake of being innovative. This is an approach that many American and Canadian consumers appreciate as it is just enough innovation to be current but not so much that they become beta testers for the latest and greatest ideas coming from the tech world.
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The smartphone era defined a shift in the way that we as human beings communicate with one another. Where the phone call was replaced by the text message and eventually the instant message. The two services that pioneered this shift were BlackBerry Messenger and iMessage. Each platform’s dominance created an exclusivity to using a BlackBerry or an iPhone. An almost cult-like following that drove users to BlackBerry OS and iOS respectfully.
At the height of BlackBerry as a consumer product, there were two main draws of the product: device security and a proprietary messaging client. BlackBerry Messenger was the killer app of the late 2000s. There was an exclusivity to being a BlackBerry user because of BBM. Everyone had their profile code and people were sending one another these profile codes as a sort of exclusive club of superior messaging.
BBM made BlackBerry an icon. Celebrities were seen using their Bolds and Curves on the strength of BBM communication. As the company has faded and Apple has become the dominant smartphone player in North America, BBM has become iMessage but the dynamic is still the same as it ever was.
iMessage is the killer app of the iPhone. Some may say it is FaceTime or even AirDrop, but the reality is that when people use the iPhone they become addicted to iMessage. So much so that leaving iOS for Android is a complete nonstarter because of this messaging platform that has become so much more than just messaging. iMessage has evolved into having in-app games and becoming a social media platform with dedicated profiles for iMessage users.
This is where Apple has realized what BlackBerry never did. Messaging is simply not enough, there must be a lock-in for the user outside of only communication. Apple has made iMessage as addictive and nearly irreplaceable as Twitter or Snapchat. The mere suggestion of leaving the iPhone to use Android stops when iMessage goes away. The product is not only efficient but also a staple of the entire iPhone experience.
Many have attributed the fall of BlackBerry to several things. One of the most mentioned errors though is the Canadian company not opening up BlackBerry Messenger to other platforms sooner than it did. BlackBerry banked on the exclusivity appeal of their messaging platform as their operating system continued to nosedive. This bullishness showed a lack of vision and accountability. Apple now must avoid making the same mistake with their beloved messaging platform.
Many believe that iMessage will never come to Android or the web. After all, Apple keeps almost all of its services within its hardware (except for Apple Music). Yet at the same time, Apple is also starting to pivot to a more service-based model with an emphasis on iCloud and Apple Card. A future where iMessage on an Android is a subscription-based app may not as far-fetched as once thought. At a point in time where many feel that iMessage is the draw of iOS, avoiding the mistakes of BlackBerry is crucial.
The Secure Platform
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A term in the smartphone world that is often thrown around without much context is security. Every company that makes a phone has some stance on security, on the ability of its phones being immune to hacks and malware. Google mentions its monthly security patch updates for Pixel phones and Samsung has its proprietary Knox security system. Apple has taken this idea and made it a selling point for the iPhone. Apple’s current ads revolve around the iPhone being the most secure smartphone on the planet. Another case of history repeating itself, as BlackBerry made the same type of claims about its phones years ago.
For years, BlackBerry has touted its security as the reason to buy its phones. It is this reputation of security and privacy that gained the company countless government and enterprise contracts for employee issued smartphones. In the modern era of BYOD smartphone solutions with companies, Apple has taken the mantle as the privacy-focused company. Every update that the operating system implements seem to have a focus on consumer privacy and non-invasive data collection. In many ways, the anti-Google.
But why is this so important to companies like BlackBerry and Apple? An argument can be made that a focus on privacy is somewhat fruitless in the era of the smartphone. That long ago, we as a collective of human beings decided to sacrifice privacy for convenience. What Apple and BlackBerry have done in this time is an attempt to strike a balance. That all of your favorite apps can still be used and enjoyed without the snooping and tracking that companies like Facebook implement.
There is not a huge rush by Chinese companies such as Huawei or Oppo to implement such security features to limit tracking. Why is this so important to North American companies? The answer lies somewhere in a cultural difference. Here in the US and Canada, there is a mentality of government skepticism. Where we question the upper crust of society and are disapproving of their motivations. We assume that people in power will always exploit the common man and this translates into how the people running our technology companies will approach designing a product that millions of people use every day. Americans enjoy the comfort of something safe and secure. The same reason that innovations take a while to catch on here is the same reason why Apple and BlackBerry have profited off of creating a smartphone that is considered safe.
It is this emphasis on security and privacy that has created a reputation of toxicity for Android and all the companies that make Android phones. The lazy notion that all Android phones get malware stems from this effective marketing, where the fears of people are tapped into creating allegiances. Apple and BlackBerry being situated in North America have a unique understanding of this cultural phenomenon in ways that LG and Samsung never could. And they have used this knowledge to create an aura of safety around the names of their products.
Sins of the Past
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With so much in common, the question must be asked: will Apple suffer the same fate as BlackBerry? Will another titan of North American tech fade into obscurity for not adapting to the times? The answer is a complicated one. Apple and BlackBerry are not directly analogous in a few respects. Apple has a full product portfolio and is much more consumer-facing that BlackBerry ever was. Apple has its toes in the smartphone, tablet, smartwatch, laptop, desktop, and personal audio market. BlackBerry at the height of its popularity was only a phone company.
Apple has tailored its experience around consumers while BlackBerry focused on businesspeople and the enterprise more than anything else. However, there are similarities here. Both companies took a more measured approach to adopt innovations. BlackBerry stuck by not having a proper touch screen in response to the iPhone and refused to see the appeal of a cross-platform messenger when solutions like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger became popular. Apple is notorious for waiting before implementing a feature, such as waiting to include wireless charging in the iPhone. The current trend of smartphones is leaning towards high refresh rates and folding/dual displays. Two trends that Apple has not leaned into at all.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that Apple does not need to be on the bleeding edge of consumer tech because its user base does not need these features. A phone for the everyman does not need to have the latest and greatest tech, instead, a focus on usability makes more sense. This is a similar thought process to BlackBerry sticking to a hardware keyboard instead of a large touch screen. That businesspeople did not need a big screen because a keyboard that handles email well is the real advantage. Of course, BlackBerry was mistaken and has paid the price. Will Apple pay the same toll?
If folding screen phones become the standard, Apple may regret waiting as long as they have. The companies pivot into services in my opinion is the right one. Hardware is starting to plateau, which is why so many companies have started to experiment with new form factors. Apple has decided that hardware is dead and software is the ultimate endgame. It has made a pivot in that regard that BlackBerry never made. While on the surface it seems that Apple is being rigid and conventional in comparison to the wackiness of LG and experimentation of Samsung, they are making slight adjustments to make their offering more appealing. In that regard, they have learned from BlackBerry’s mistakes. There is no question that Apple is the reincarnation of BlackBerry, iPhones have the same addictive quality that BlackBerry’s had all those years ago. But Apple is a 2.0 of BlackBerry, an evolution as opposed to a carbon copy; and that should be enough to escape the same fate.
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