While the world watched in fascination as Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign in 600 years, another symbolic transition was unfolding along the corridors of US power. The BlackBerry, government agencies’ longtime workhorse mobile communications device, is quietly “stepping down” too.
The Pentagon just announced that it will allow Department of Defense employees to use iOS and Android devices as their primary work phone beginning in October 2013. The move comes as BlackBerry, once Research in Motion’s golden child, continues to struggle while iPhones and Android devices take over the mobile handset market. Although BlackBerry hasn’t said bye-bye just yet and the company’s Z10 and Q10 phones designed for the new BlackBerry 10 OS are due out in a few weeks, announcements like this have powerful PR implications.
When people think of BlackBerry many envision a younger, less gray haired President-elect Barack Obama circa 2008. So wedded to his mobile device the media dubbed him the first “BlackBerry President.” Even before that, however, BlackBerry had become synonymous with business professionals. It wasn’t a toy like the iPod or still-infant iPhone, the BlackBerry was the serious person’s smartphone. BlackBerry’s physical keyboard allowed far greater speed and accuracy typing emails, it was a data secure platform and BlackBerry Messenger was an immediate and easy way to communicate via text.
So when an agency like the Department of Defense (I can’t think of a more serious group of men and women, can you?) leaves BlackBerry defenseless, you have to wonder what the future will bring for a company and product that were once the leaders in the world of mobile business communications.
Of course, the 600,000 DOD employees aren’t the only ones left in Washington or elsewhere still BBMing. If the Z and Q 10 reviews are positive, there’ll be plenty who remain loyal to the brand. In fact, lest we forget, part of the BlackBerry cachet was the need to have two devices: a Blackberry for work and an iPhone (or similar device) for play. It was a Men In Black-like split identity that for a brief moment, many embraced and some still will. But, then again, Samsung’s latest enterprise messaging tackles this “split phone-personality” dilemma so that’s moot.
BlackBerry’s newest operating system, OS 10, has also gotten many positive reviews. A CNET editor gave OS 10 4.5 out of 5 stars and the article’s author wrote, “In many ways, RIM’s hard work has paid off. With its richly designed graphical interface, BlackBerry 10 is a mobile OS for grown-ups.” Speaking of grown-ups, for college graduates in the early and mid 2000s, generally in their late 20s and early 30s today, BlackBerry was their introduction to the mobile web. And as with a first car, many choose, somewhat irrationally, to remain true to the product or products that broadened their world.
But physical and data highways share another important parallel. When a new route opens the older road, slower, potholed and less direct, often falls into disuse. I think BlackBerry is well aware of this risk, which is exactly why the brand isn’t attempting some 11th hour tactic to become more like its competitors. BlackBerrys are not iPhones or Androids. Even so, eventually everyone grows up and adapts to the times. BlackBerry can’t bank on nostalgia-inspired sales for long.
The bottom line: When the Pentagon calls it quits, the implied PR message is that many others will follow.
This pronouncement probably doesn’t carry the weight of a Papal bull, but as Pope Emeritus helicopters to his summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, it’s interesting to note that on December 5, 2012 the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, announced the development of a new app called simply, “The Pope.” Appropriately, The Pope was designed for iPhones and Androids, not BlackBerrys.