BlackBerry maker on edge as it bets farm on new devices
The latest round of BlackBerry devices may be somewhat of a last chance for Research in Motion, as it was up to yesterday.
Once the jewel in Canada’s crown, the firm – which has changed its name to that of its most famous product – has seen the popularity of its devices plummet in recent years as the surge of smartphones overtook it.
The devices have already been delayed by a year, and in that time the competition has become increasingly fierce.
BlackBerry needs something attention-grabbing to sway consumers back from rival platforms, and it is hoping that the new generation of BlackBerry 10 phones, unveiled yesterday by chief executive Thorsten Heins in New York, will be it.
“This is betting the farm – it’s that big, it’s that important,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC in Massachusetts. “It’s one thing to work internally to right the ship, get the staff in place, and get the products and services all set. When you bring it externally, that’s a whole different ballgame.”
It wasn’t always such a difficult market for the smartphone maker. BlackBerry was once the business phone of choice. The email device evolved in 2002 to tackle the phone market and before long they were in many offices and government departments around the world.
In later years they found favour among a younger market who embraced the BlackBerry Messenger service – direct messaging between BlackBerry devices based on a device identification number.
The company has faced increasing competition over the past few years, first from Apple and then Android.
But instead of rising to the occasion, it has been almost swallowed whole. Sales have declined for six straight quarters, and the company has seen its market share fall from 41 per cent just before the iPhone launched in 2007 to around 4.7 per cent today.
According to the most recent report from Strategy Analytics, Apple and Android phones represented 92 per cent of smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter.
Part of this is due to a more consumer-driven approach in the smartphone market.
“Companies are no longer buying the majority of smartphones sold today, and individuals overwhelmingly choose devices other than BlackBerries when they make buying decisions,” said Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst with research firm Ovum in a note.
“The firm continues to face the twin demons of consumer-driven buying power and a chronic inability to appeal to mature market consumers. There is nothing in what we’ve seen so far of BB10 that suggests it will conquer the second of these demons, and the first is utterly out of its control.”
Mr Heins has been working to reverse the company’s declining fortunes since he took over in 2012. He has cut 30 per cent of the workforce, taken on more marketing and sales chiefs, and expanded the company’s cash reserves to $2.9 billion.
Stock has also gained in the past few months, a tentative sign that investors are optimistic about the company’s future with the new handsets.
But BlackBerry has a tough mountain to climb.
“I know they’re targeting the ‘prosumer’ but you’ve got to remember that consumer and enterprise are becoming one person now,” said Kris Thompson, a National Bank financial analyst based in Toronto. “They need to improve the brand so it makes users feel cool again.”
Analysts are mixed on the upcoming BlackBerry 10 devices. While the first touch-screen model will have some interesting aspects, analyst at Wedge Partners Brian Blair said the device lacks a major distinguishing feature. “I have yet to see the key feature in BB10 to get people to leave iPhone, Android or Windows.”
The sharks have been circling for some time, with the firm pegged as a takeover target for everyone from Microsoft to most recently Lenovo, with the company’s valuable patents often touted as the real target.
For the moment, however, BlackBerry could conceivably continue in business for some time. At the end of the last quarter, it had 79 million subscribers.
“But its glory days are past, and it is only a matter of time before it reaches a natural end,” Ovum’s Dawson said.
(Additional reporting: Bloomberg, Reuters)