interview


BlackBerry’s Bates explains BB10 strategy

Stephen Bates, European MD at BlackBerry

Blackberry – the Canadian handset maker formerly known as RIM – has had a tough time in the months leading up to the launch of its long-awaited BlackBerry 10 operating system. Financial struggles, fading market share, service outages, management overhauls and the delays to the launch of the new platform have combined to generate a good deal of unfavourable media coverage for the firm.

At the end of January, Stephen Bates, European MD at BlackBerry, endured criticism for the firm’s recent hardships from national media in the UK, but he believes BlackBerry 10 will silence the firm’s critics.

“We’ve been going through a transition and we’ve been building up to today, and one of the things is that it is important is that we show people what we can do, rather than tell them,” Bates explained to Telecoms.com at the BlackBerry 10 launch event on January 30th. “We’ve been waiting for this point so that we can demonstrate the platform and articulate what it’s about.

“We take criticism all the time. It’s very fair – we as a business have gone through some tough times,” he acknowledged, “but we’ve made some major changes to address the issues that we’ve had. [CEO] Thorsten Heins has been there for a year and has rejuvenated the company, and we’re on course to bring BlackBerry back.”

In Bates’ view, the communication element of BlackBerry 10 is the most exciting aspect of the platform. The BlackBerry Hub – the name given to the way BlackBerry has brought together POP3, webmail, SMS, BBM, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare identities seamlessly as contacts – improves communication between business acquaintances, family and friends, he said. The platform’s touchscreen keyboard is a close second, though.

“I’ve used QWERTY keyboards for ten years,” said Bates, “and now I’m not sure I’m going to go back to it, because the touchscreen keyboard is such a good experience.”

“It’s one of those things that is hard to explain – it’s better to show it, and once you’ve used it, you’ll start to see the uniqueness in the keyboard experience.”

Indeed, Bates acknowledged that it is difficult in general to articulate the nuances of an operating system by simply describing it. It’s not a matter of simply trumpeting hardware specs, the unique elements of the user experience are much more subtle than that – which makes it difficult to promote the platform to media and to the market. It is for this reason that BlackBerry has been touring the world meeting developers to show them the platform through its BlackBerry Jam tour.

“Historically, the way our devices became prevalent was through word-of-mouth, so that’s one channel that is very important to us,” said Bates. “We’ve been engaging with BlackBerry fans and with the BlackBerry Facebook community as well, trying to show them the potential of the platform.”

“We’ll also be using above the line and below the line marketing channels. Ultimately though, we’re looking to show people, rather than tell them, how good this platform is.”

He added that BlackBerry has also engaged with operator and retail partners to train shop and call centre staff. The objective is “to make sure every single person selling a mobile phone understands the benefits of BB10 and can articulate the key messages.”

One of those messages is that BlackBerry 10 is not an enterprise platform; rather it is a consumer platform for enterprise users. The enterprise was fundamental to the rise of Blackberry, Bates said, and the firm is not about to step away from that legacy. Instead it hopes to cash in on the BYOD trend that sees employees using their own smartphones for corporate function and access. Hence BlackBerry Balance, a sandbox that separates and secures corporate applications and data from personal content on BlackBerry devices.

“We’ve seen in the enterprise market that there’s a conflict of desires. There are people as users or employees; we want to do our work things, but we also want to browse the internet, tweet, use Facebook, connect with our friends and so on,” said Bates. “But the companies that we work for want to secure our data make sure that the device is managed—and the market has not yet found a nice solution to those two worlds. Uniquely with BlackBerry Balance, we’re delivering the first real answer to this coexistence of us as businesspeople and us as consumers and living in both of those worlds on the same device.”

It is likely that the much of operator community also wants BlackBerry to perform well, given the power that Google and Apple now have over the market with their respective Android and iOS platforms. The two platforms account for 92 per cent of the smartphone market today, according to Strategy Analytics, and Apple has introduced a policy of testing operators’ LTE networks before allowing its iPhone devices to run on those networks.

At the beginning of the January BlackBerry launch event, Thorsten Heins made a point of thanking former co-CEO Jim Balsillie for the strong relationships that the handset maker has with operators. And according to Bates, the support the firm has received from operators has been key in getting devices in the market so soon after the launch event.

“From our discussions with the carriers, they want us to succeed. They’ve given us support for testing, particularly in the UK, to get BB10 out quickly,” said Bates.

“Quite a lot of the reason that the Z10 (the new flagship) has come out so quickly is because of the operators. We’ve got their support; they were working with us since very early on, on testing devices, and they’ve been working behind the scenes to ensure they can get enough shipments in on time. They’re training staff on the benefits on the platform, and fundamentally, without their support, we would not be launching the platform tomorrow. So it’s a good time for me to say thank you, the support from carriers has been brilliant for us to get out to the market early.”


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