BlackBerry 10 looks a good phone platform, but Peter Judge asks if innovation could actually count against it
At the launch of the make-or-break BlackBerry 10 platform RIM changed its name to BlackBerry. Like the features of BB10, it’s a sensible, inevitable move. But BlackBerry is on a hiding to nothing. As the company’s hapless European managing director Stephen Bates found on BBC TV and radio today, it is destined for a thorough kicking.
The company has renamed itself, and lined up 70,000 apps for the first day of its new platform. It’s got a good-looking new phone, the Z 10, and the new user interface really does look like a big step in the right direction. In the UK, it has lined up all major operators, including Everything Everywhere, Vodafone, O2 and Orange, as well as BT and Phones 4u, and it’s available tomorrow.
But strangely enough, I find myself feeling sympathy for the inevitable trashing BlackBerry will get. And I got to this thought by way of this week’s joke smartphone accessory, the iPhone cup-holder.
Bates TV smash-up
Let’s start with Bates. He was briefed-up with a lot of press-release material suited to the trade press, and then faced with the business news reporter of various daily news shows, on which he was progressively ridiculed and pulled apart.
Bates remembered someone his interviewers have probably not heard of: Mike Lazaridis – the co-CEO who walked out of an interview with the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones when the questions got pointed. He was determined not to repeat Lazaridis’ failure. His tactics, were to keep smiling, refuse to answer any questions he didn’t like, and above all, don’t walk out.
As a result he came across like an obfuscating government minister, refusing to answer any question, and simply ploughed on with platitudes about “the essence of that Blackberry experience” and its “unique proposition”.
On Radio 4’s Today programme, business editor Simon Jack quite reasonably interrupted Bates’ flow of platitudes and asked what was new about the OS. Bates offered BlackBerry Balance, the feature which allows a BlackBerry phone to flip between “work” and “personal” modes, between freedom and security.
Jack was unimpressed, and asked for more detail, Bates told him all would be revealed at the launch. Jack might reasonably have pointed out that everyone – even TechWeekEurope, has had a hands-on preview, and we have a pretty good idea what BlackBerry 10 will look like already. “You sound like you are reading from a press release,” Bates was told.
After that, Bates was a moving media train-wreck. On Radio 5 Live, he repeatedly ignored a question “What have you learnt from the iPhone?”, and on BBC Breakfast TV, he seemed not to hear the question “What went wrong with the launch?”
What else could BlackBerry do?
The problem BlackBerry faces – as Bates found – is that people have a schizophrenic attitude to the new. His interviewers could only understand BB10 by reference to the iPhone, or to BlackBerry’s past.
In the same way, now the majority of people have smartphones and have invested the time in using their user interfaces, no matter how much they talk about wanting something new, it’s a real question whether they actually want it.
Microsoft is having a hell of a struggle getting people to pick up Windows Phone, even though it has made sensible changes to the user interface, which have clear benefits if you are a Microsoft Outlook user.
And while we lambast Apple for its inability to actually innovate on the iPhone, let’s consider the possibility that it simply can’t change the product too much for fear of alienating the users.
The BlackBerry 10 launch, by contrast, really is stressing new and different features of BlackBerry 10. They are impressive, especially the way it multi-tasks, so users can switch from mail to social media without exiting one application. And features such as BBM video and screen-sharing (pictured) look good.
Also, the soft keyboard genuinely looks much better than what I have seen in iPhones or Android phones – as it should be given BlackBerry’s heritage.
But how is anyone going to find the time and spare attention to make use of them?
The shock of the new
Compare this with cars. There are no real innovations in the user interfaces of cars – and how could there be? The engines change (and can even switch over to gas or electricity) but they have to drive the same or people simply can’t use them.
So anyone buying a car will only check the miles per gallon and the kind of features you can easily adapt to. In other words, the quality of the music player and where the cup-holders are.
Last week, a Dutch marketing company pitched an iPhone case with a built in cup-holder on a crowdfunding site. The joke got taken up, and taken seriously, by several news sites. To me it symbolises the fact that there may be real limits to what you can do that is new in smartphones.
BlackBerry is making a strong effort to change things more radically than other mainstream phone makers have done. But it’s on the horns of a dilemma. Make it too different, and you scare people off.
Like all BlackBerry observers, I have to say “Time will tell”, because like a large part of the tech community I want to see BlackBerry succeed. But I have a depressing feeling that, the more radical the firm is, the harder it will have to work to get users on board.