I’m not making a prediction here — I’m pondering a possibility. I spent a day with BlackBerry last week and it brought back memories of how Apple displaced the company around a decade ago. I, like a lot of folks at the time, thought what Apple was attempting was impossible. However, after the fact, it didn’t even look difficult.
BlackBerry largely has completed its pivot to software and services, but a wave of new phones from its partners apparently will be coming to market shortly. Now, BlackBerry isn’t even going to try to displace Apple, so this is a “what if” look at how the company might go about doing to Apple what Apple did to it.
John Chen, BlackBerry’s CEO, is more Steve Jobs like than Tim Cook is, and Apple is hardly at the top of its game at the moment.
I’ll do some serious speculating and then close with my product of the week: the Holley Sniper EFI that can make your old car run like a new car.
Steve Jobs’ Magical Move
If we drop back a bit over a decade, Apple was dominant with the iPod but Steve Jobs realized that smartphones had the potential to absorb that market and displace it. Anticipating that wave, he first partnered badly, but he learned from his mistake and then developed his own device. Jobs made the decision to cannibalize the iPod and critically harm that market as he pivoted Apple to smartphones. In the process, he drove Palm out of the market, and dropped Research In Motion (RIM, BlackBerry’s previous company name) to its knees.
Even Microsoft was critically damaged, and the market disruption was instrumental in causing Bill Gates to fire his best friend, CEO Steve Ballmer. Anyone who might have suggested that any of these things would happen before the iPhone shipped would have been laughed off the stage. Yet in hindsight, it doesn’t look impossible at all. Steve Jobs made it look easy.
Ironically, there were people at both Palm and Microsoft who developed plans for an iPhone-like product before Apple. However, executives in both firms thought the ideas were stupid, and that anything but a business focus for those devices was stupid. They killed the programs, only to lose their own jobs as Apple pounded them for their mistaken views.
I think the real irony here was that Jobs saw a threat that he thought was a common vision, but he was the only top executive who seemed to hold it at the time. Given that Apple was the trigger for Android, it makes you wonder whether we’d still have iPods and BlackBerrys today had Jobs not made that pivot.
The market shift came with a lot of pain — not just for companies like Nokia, Palm and RIM, which had been dominant, but for users as well. Keyboard phones could be used blind — you could feel the keys. Business apps weren’t as numerous or as distracting. You could use those older phones and do something else at the same time more easily.
With screen-centric phones and virtual keyboards, people have to look at the devices. That makes multitasking while walking or driving far more dangerous, resulting in a substantial number of accidents and deaths, and spurring laws preventing the use of smartphones while driving.
As a side note, there is a growing interest in flip phones again, which suggests the market is looking for a change.