Monday, July 2, 2012

When BlackBerry is still relevant

I have just returned from a one week beach-side vacation with a bunch of good friends. In a low network (Edge only) zone, my Galaxy Nexus quickly gave up on uploads, the super-slow FB app and browsing of most sites. My mail worked fine (GMail on Android is just about the best mail app, apart from BlackBerry) and I was happy because I expected nothing else.

My friend is a BB addict and she was constantly on BBM, uploading pictures and chatting with friends. Within a few hours of our arrival, she had uploaded pictures of our beautiful beach cottage and idyllic rural surrounds and elicited envious responses from other friends. I was still struggling to find the best network zone within the house. I could upload literally nothing. Nothing. Until we went up a lighthouse one day and miraculously I saw the H (HSPA) icon flash. Immediately I choked up Instagram with the many uploads I had wanted to do on all the preceding days and was unable to.

It's not that I could not have  tweaked my smartphone settings (camera especially) to work on 2G. The point is, that smartphones by default assume high speed internet settings while good old BB and Nokia work smoothly by default on 2G. This is their biggest strength, and ironically, the biggest reason for their failure in the modern smartphone era. In other words, the earlier generation of smartphones work perfectly well, indeed better, if you just require a phone with basic connectivity.

My friend was constantly typing out status updates, messages and e-mails. I realise that I used to do a lot of that on my old Nokia E63 and I have drastically reduced typing and texting since I moved to touch phones. I tend to use more apps and type less, one of the main reasons being that a touchscreen keyboard, no matter how awesome, just does not make typing a breeze the way a QWERTY keyboard does. The touchscreen phones have driven us to the 'app internet' where social networking is based on common cross-OS platforms including Instagram, Pinterest, FourSquare etc. In fact, we spend more time downloading, uploading, browsing, liking, sharing, re-tweeting what others write or post, and less typing lengthy mails, SMSes and status updates. Whereas people on BB seem to do the opposite. They type copiously and obviously use less apps, simply because the app internet has lagged way behind on BlackBerry compared to Android or iOS. They rely on native RIM applications which work seamlessly with the phone - low-res pictures upload smoothly onto BBM. Mails get pushed efficiently. Fingers fly on the best QWERTY keyboards ever made. The data hungry apps that power the superlative Android and iOS experience would not enrich the BB experience, no matter how much BB tries to update its OS. Because by default BB and Symbian are built around a core concept of a phone with texting ability. They will function effectively irrespective of internet speed. Whereas a smartphone without great internet connectivity is like a horseless carriage. You cannot do much on it without superlative net connectivity.

This insight got me thinking around the fate of BlackBerry especially in the light of the many reports on RIM's woeful performance and imminent shutdown. Symbian has of course been killed by Nokia themselves, but RIM is still attempting to fight the battle to the bitter end. As we all know, RIM has found some measure of success among an unlikely market in India - the youth, who have eschewed the more 'modern' app experience of Android on over priced smartphones and expensive 3G for unlimited texting and sharing on BBM - a market which has generated healthy sales for the low priced BB Curve. I  think there is indeed a market for BB but one which it must swallow its pride to claim and that is the low-end/ entry handset market. If you had a choice between a BB at Rs.5000 and a Micromax at the same price, which one would you take? It's a no-brainer. The low price handset constitutes a huge chunk of the market in India and most other emerging cellphone markets. Yes, it is a bitter fight with other white box manufacturers but it is a credible market. And unlike white box manufacturers, RIM does have  chance to generate revenue after sales through BlackBerry mail and messaging services, so this can be a sustainable market for them.

If I were RIM, I would take my best shot at this growing market. BlackBerry has all the ingredients to succeed in entry level phones - great and simple to use hardware, reputable and aspirational branding, and an efficient operating system that can deliver a good experience on a basic 2G connection. Think up a creative and economical method of charging for BBM on a pre-paid platform and I would say they have a fantastic value proposition.

I would sooner own a BlackBerry, than a cheap Android handset. For the price, it does it's job more honestly and efficiently. I think most consumers recognise this. For this, RIM would have to give up their 'smartphone' credentials, and that's a hard call to take. But I think that being the undisputed king of the largest phone segment (which is neglected by smartphone manufacturers completely) is not at all a bad deal.