Monday, February 11, 2013

My thoughts on Blackberry and Mobile Computing

At the company I work, B Sharp Technologies, the management team one week ago decided to embrace twitter and social media in general.  While bumbling through twitter, I had this brief discussion about Blackberry with Tim Stevens, the chief editor at Engadget.

I agree they can't be #1 or #2 today, but I very much think it is possible to plan a road to it.

Bill Gates did it to mighty IBM and Steve Jobs did it to Microsoft after Microsoft saved their bacon.
We know it is possible for the little guy to out innovate the big guy. In fact in Apple's case they did it after having moderate initial success, had a terrible fall, only to rise from the ashes again, much bigger and stronger. Sound like Blackberry? Well the first two chapters anyway.

Before one can rise again, the company needs to meet some basic prerequisites first.

Firstly, they they need a strong, patient, focused and cohesive management team and board who are hungry to succeed and have the ability motivate a staff with serious morale issues.

Secondly, they need a high level plan which they are given sufficient time to execute. Berlin was not rebuilt in a day. The details of the plan can be formulated based on how things progress.

Thirdly, they need a strong and flexible technical platform in place to work from.

Before talking about Blackberry and whether they have the necessary prerequisites to go forward, lets look at the "kings".

Apple - They no longer have the strong and focused management team. The guys who got them here are gone. Not only are they gone, but they are virtually irreplaceable. They seem to be left with bureaucrats who are overly obsessed with generating big short term gains and squashing the competition when possible, particularly via patent litigation. They have seemingly lost the cohesiveness, focus and possibly the hunger as well. Do they have a plan in place to lead the way to the next paradigm shift? With constant quick releases of pointless new S versions of products and obsession with keeping competition like Samsung down rather that trying out-innovate them, I can't see much happening that will be noteworthy. iWatch? It does not excite me like the Google Glass HUD (heads-up display) initiative. If you want a wearable device, what is the point of wearing it on your wrist?
Wearing it on your eyes and in your ears give you a whole lot more possibilities. I think one of Warren Buffets' famous quotes apply to Apple "Bad things aren't obvious when times are good"

Google - They have their strong leaders still there who are still very much intimately part of big new initiatives such as Google Glass and Driver-less Cars. They brought in a CEO and learned a lot from him about how to run a business, not one of their strong initial skills. Google is going great guns and I cannot see the other "Kings" being in any position to keep up. The Google Glass project alone could could be a big enough game changer to define the next paradigm shift. There just does not seem like there is anything that can slow Google down anytime soon. I think though they are facing some focus issues due the sheer volume of their projects and initiatives.

Microsoft - Well they are a giant seemingly going nowhere on the innovation front. Their management team is in disarray. In fact they have had leadership issues since the day Gates resigned. Platform? Yeah they do have a nice new consolidated one, but will that be the platform to allow them to lead the way to the next big thing? I don't think so. They are constantly playing catch-up and they are now alienating their partners by entering the hardware business and competing directly with many of them. Their biggest strength is customer lock-in,  which means, it is hard to leave them because there is so much dependency on their software. But that market advantage is starting to wear thin in the mobile world.

The only company "king" then that has it together to lead the way to the next shift is Google. The others are ready for the taking.

So what about Blackberry then? - How can they take on the "kings", particularly Microsoft and Apple? I have been studying the management team at Blackberry and I am very impressed. They interview well, they are calm, low key ,well prepared and seem clearly focused. I really like the fact that they don't waste their time trying to "diss" the competition. They seem to have a high level plan, and part of it is probably to put all their focus now into getting back onto a reasonable playing field first before they can start thinking about executing their next play.  Currently, if Blackberry can be well entrenched as number #3 in the smartphone OS business, ahead of Microsoft, I would think the management team will be very happy with that.

Blackberry has completed all the pre-requisites. They just completed the last one, which was to release the platform which will be their technical foundation for at least the next decade as announced by the CEO. I think anyone technical, who has studied the QNX platform, will have a difficult time disagreeing with the fact that Blackberry currently has the most superior platform from all the players.

Many analysts and technology writers can't see the "forest from the trees". If they could I suppose they would be CEOs and not analysts. That is the reason I feel many of them for example with respect to Blackberry ask similar questions or make similar claims in their articles. 1. "Is Blackberry too late?"; 2.  "Do they have enough to compete with the kings?"; 3."They don't have enough to differentiate themselves today"; 4."They do not have the necessary apps to sway people away".

My answer to those analysts questions are: 1. "Its never too late, if you have completed the pre-requisites and you are confident and determined" 2. "Yes they do for the same reason as 1" 3. Well they do on the UI front with HUB and Flow for business people, but not enough to get the general consumer 4. Agreed, but it should not matter in the long term. I will talk more about this down below.

Here is what really like about what Blackberry is doing and why I think they can become one of the  leaders in their field in time.

1) They are downplaying the Tablet. I am no visionary, but it would be great if they have the gutsy plans to scrap the tablet completely. Instead focus on becoming one of the leaders in embracing an alternative to the age old fixed display. They need to find a way to incorporate a large display solution with a small mobile device. Carrying around two CPUs to perform essentially the same functions, but with one just being used to provide a larger display surface makes little sense. Therefore giving the smartphone the ability make its display bigger, effectively makes a tablet redundant.
Maybe they look into a flexible display for the smartphone that can adjust in size as needed. We are seeing innovation already in this area from the likes of Samsung. Maybe they incorporate HUD, a kind of real time, virtual projection system similar to what is being done in the Google Glass project. Imagine sitting in a subway train and having HUD integration with your mobile device so you can read a big digital version of a newspaper that moves with you as you move your head. At home or office you could cradle the phone to a docking station with all the necessary peripherals, such as a big display. With Google glass you wear the whole computer, but maybe the phone can still have a fixed display that can integrate with a HUD peripheral when needed. They should start with output first. Input can come later.

2) They are talking about maybe getting out of the hardware business. If they can partner with a big player like Lenovo or Sony, then innovating, designing and building these new display devices and peripherals around the QNX platform become even more realistic. The Chinese and Japanese markets for QNX OS will open up as well.  Blackberry branding will change, but similar transitions such as IBM thinkpad to Lenovo Thinkpad  were fairly smooth. Blackberry can stay focused on advancing their new software platform for future mobile computing solutions while partnered with a strong set of hardware partners.

3) They are downplaying the importance of Apps. Well maybe they have no choice as they don't have the market share to get developers interested. I am hoping though that they have the vision that fat apps are only temporary. I think they do because they built the Android player. They know for the short term they have to appease the analysts and investors who place huge value on apps support, particularly leading ones like Instagram, Skype and Netflix. It is unlikely many of the app vendors would want to put resources into learning Cascades and to build their app all over again with all the testing challenges that go with it. It would probably be very tough to justify the ROI for most companies, but maybe an Android port could be simple and easy to do.
To me the whole Apps thing on mobile devices is one big con job. The apps stores generate huge revenues for the store hosts. I am not saying there was any deliberate conspiracy behind the initial app phenomenon because there was a practical reason to create large numbers of apps due to limitations in the devices. With 3g and LTE being virtually standard everywhere, a big increase in CPU power and browsers speeds being on par with laptop versions, I don't think we need all that many apps anymore. I "chuckle" when I go onto sites such as the New York Times, Cricinfo and other news sites and they ask if I want to download their native app version. Why? What about Twitter, Facebook, Linked IN, Youtube? I am sure most of us are perfectly happy using the thin version of these on our laptop, so why not on mobile devices? If developers spent more time focusing on good web mobile user interfaces, most apps would not be necessary. Native apps are also built so that user navigation can be consistent with apps built into the OS, but a lot of this can be accomplished on thin versions using CSS3 rendering today. We have developed at B Sharp, thin apps using the simple open source CSS3 toolkit called iWebkit, which can make a basic web app look just like an iPhone/iPad native app. Again its all about spending time and effort into building simple developer toolkits for thin solutions. But thin mobile apps are not in fashion, so its not happening as fast as it should.
There are still many apps which have value in remaining fat. Good examples are Evernote and Dropbox which are built for offline use. A similar argument can apply for games which can also be device intensive. It is though only a matter of time when thin is king. Remember in the 90s how much demand there was for people with Visual Basic or Powerbuilder skills? Boy did the need for those skills die off pretty quickly, seemingly overnight.  Similarly demand for objective C and Cascades developers should dissipate. Hopefully Blackberry's focus on Apps is part of a short term plan, just as a means to keep them in solid 3rd place for now.

4) They seem to be looking at providing practical NFC functions. I read they recently signed a deal to validate visa transactions. Hopefully they have lots of future plans to be one of the leaders in embracing NFC transactions which should become a standard and important part of the mobile experience.

5)  What I like most of all about Blackberry is their management team. I can't say this enough. They have passed with flying colours at least to an outsider like myself. Internally I am sure things are not that rosy, but where is it in any company? Many people say they are late to the game.
But why not instead look at the how they managed to get back into the game at all? That is a lot more interesting, surely? The board replaced their CEOs just a mere year ago. The new CEO Thorsten Heins formed a cohesive management team which then had the unenviable job of having to make the company lean, which meant cutting jobs. In addition they had to deal undoubtedly with conflict issues with their current Java team and the QNX team from Ottawa. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to deal with this type of conflict and initial low moral while the company restructured, knowing they had a massive product development effort going on with BB10. This happened while they had to keep investors and unhappy corporate customers at bay. Then they also had to introduce the UI team from Sweden into the fold. That must have resulted in some serious sparks flying.
So I as a consumer and business owner myself, I am not lamenting about how late they are to the game, but rather quite in awe at how they managed to get such a strong first iteration of their product out this soon frankly.

I will be continuing to follow Blackberry and I am very interested in what they have planned for tomorrow. I really believe they have a pretty good chance to regain market share in 3 to 5 years and compete head on with the "kings" in the mobile computing space, and even lead the way in some cases.

My Platforms
Work: Ubuntu Linux 12.04 laptop with VM versions of Windows XP and 7. Getting 8
Mobile: MAC air 11", Google Nexus 7, iPod touch, Blackberry Z10 (which replaced my daily use Galaxy GS3 on Monday)
Home: iMAC 21"
Productivity: Google Apps for Business and Google Drive.

1 comment:

Shahed Naseem said...

Very interesting Vijit,thanks for sharing :)