Analysis There’s something about BlackBerry that even its biggest fans can forget. BlackBerry has never been a phone company – it has always been a network company. For over thirty years, BlackBerry has done clever things to and with networks. It brought efficient data management, security and intelligence to mobile packet networks – very useful services.
It’s easy to forget that when you look at the RIM/BlackBerry history, it didn’t make a phone until it was 17 years old.
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Last week BlackBerry and Samsung announced a number of small news items that added up to something quite big. No wonder, then, that this week BlackBerry sites have been awash with rumours that and speculation that BlackBerry will create a “hardened” Android, perhaps with Samsung’s help – or even that Samsung will acquire the Canadian mobile granddaddy.
“It seems like every time we get the press together, we talk about Samsung a lot,” John Chen noted last week. But that’s going to happen when you announce a major strategic alliance and then flash a phone around that looks a lot like a Samsung phone.
Let’s refrain from speculation and focus on what has been agreed – because this has not been given the attention it deserves, and it has quite sweeping implications for Microsoft and Google.
Who gains what from Samsung and BlackBerry’s collaboration?
For its part, Samsung is keen to consolidate itself as an enterprise company in hardware software and services. Samsung’s determination to control its own destiny is evident in its long-term commitment to its own “unifying” platform Tizen.
The trouble is, Google doesn’t like OEMs getting what it considers to be ideas above their station: Google wants to control the platform. As we saw with Silver, Mountain View doesn’t care if the OEM brand, built up over years and using tens of billions of dollars, is reduced to a small label on the back of the phone. Samsung found itself rebuffed when it tried to introduce a new UI, and its grand roadmap for Knox took a knock when Google announced Android for Work last June. Knox would be a container, but Google would control the platform at the lowest level.
Meanwhile, after a lucrative decade in which it could package its network smarts into a consumer product and sell it in the millions, for a high margin, BlackBerry is back to looking at adding value to network services, which is really something it’s been doing consistently for thirty years.
The Samsung/BlackBerry alliance has enormous potential, for two reasons. It’s addressing a gap in the market vacated by Microsoft that Google hasn’t got the chops to fulfil, and it’s addressing it in an unusual and interesting way.
Bye bye enterprises, we want consumers ... oh
A few years ago, Microsoft tore up its mobile enterprise strategy in favour of chasing the consumer (and Apple), with Windows Phone, and a radically “Tablet-ized Windows” makeover. Windows phones are only now just getting back features (like VPN support) which they had in 2008. And it has (to be charitable) only been a partial success: Microsoft today enjoys a fraction of the market share that WM enjoyed then. In 2007, Microsoft enjoyed 42 per cent market share in the USA. What success Microsoft has enjoyed is predominantly in low cost emerging consumer markets. Not enterprises.
So Microsoft, surprisingly, isn’t providing the kind of first-class experience for Microsoft customers that it could. For example, Microsoft has 400 million Exchange users, and many of them “live in Outlook”. Outlook has rich and complex task management, used by many of those 400 million paying punters. You could consider that an asset – and expect Microsoft’s mobile platforms to take unique advantage of it. Yet the opposite is true.
If you’re an Exchange-using enterprise, you only get a second-rate experience out of the box on Microsoft’s mobile platforms. Windows Phone 8.1 vomits all your Tasks and all your Notes into one long alphabetical list, hidden away in the Calendar app, with all the valuable metadata like Categories removed. How is this “leveraging our advantage on Desktop?” It isn’t. You get a better Exchange experience using dedicated third-party apps such as Tasks and Notes for Exchange (on Android), or PlanBe for iOS, to name two.
Microsoft recently splashed out $200m on a calendar and email apps for Android and iOS – but these aren’t “best of breed” and they don’t address the shortcomings of Windows Phone. Sunrise and Acompli just happened to be for sale, and Microsoft needed them fast. (Acompli looks like a startup designed to be acquired by Microsoft. Clever guys).
So Microsoft took its eye off the ball. And Google is a sprawling consumer data processing company with a core advertising business, not a credible enterprise player. Google’s data handling gives enterprises grave concerns – I hear it particularly often from financial services companies, who wonder just who is looking at their hosted Gmail. This is not to say with focus and resources, Google won’t become an enterprise player: it just isn’t one today.
Which leaves the Samsung/BlackBerry alliance looking to fill a vacuum.
The other factor that makes the alliance interesting is the network. BlackBerry’s NOCs are its secret weapon, adding intelligence and security to the network and allowing secure and sophisticated services to be put on top. Neither Microsoft, nor Google can match this today. The alliance proposition requires various pieces to be in place: a secure endpoint, a managed network, and nice UX design, but all come together in something like BBM Meetings.
This makes rival conferencing look cumbersome and BlackBerry is flogging it for $12 per host per month – a steal. It now plugs right into Outlook, just like Lync. And as you can see from this dialogue box, with simplicity and auto-join, BBM Meetings is much nicer to use.
BBM Meetings was included in one of two bundles BlackBerry announced last year. A third bundle was announced last week. This bundle, which includes pretty much everything that differentiates a modern BlackBerry client device, will be up for licensing. Whether or not Samsung and BlackBerry are jointly creating “DroidBerries” (they might well be collaborating on design, as the as-yet-unnamed, curved glass slider BlackBerry suggests) or not is rather beside the point; a “DroidBerry” will be available for anyone who wants to make one – and it will use Knox and BlackBerry licensed technology. It’s a stealth platform if you like, made quite unique by its use of BlackBerry's NOC.
Interestingly, BlackBerry’s services chief Billy Ho told me that BlackBerry hasn’t decided whether to charge for the client bundle yet – so who gets this platform may not have been decided.
This week Goldman Sachs downgraded BlackBerry shares to "sell" on the basis that competition in MDM (Mobile Device Management) would be tough. But BlackBerry already regards MDM as a commodity, and sees the future in value added services, built on its network. Goldman Sachs seems to have missed the significance of the alliance completely. Of course, BlackBerry has to execute very well.
The alliance is a clear signal to Microsoft: don’t neglect your core base. ®