Mar 012010

Heads up, stodgy bankers and business road warriors: in case you haven’t noticed the blatant signs over the past 12 months or so, your trusty BlackBerry is no longer cool. Yeah, I know you think that because you recently traded in your old-school model with scroll wheel for the sleek black Tour or Bold 2, you’re on top of the latest trends. Sorry to burst your bubble, but your BlackBerry is the equivalent of a Motorola RAZR in late 2007.

I’m almost ashamed to write about it, being a closet BlackBerry user who’s anxiously awaiting the day I am eligible for an upgrade. That puts me squarely within the ultra un-hip “late majority” consumer segment. The only way I can muster the courage to use my BlackBerry in public is that the choice becomes less clear with each passing day which device should be my next. Today if I buy an iPhone 3GS (still my favorite from a pure hardware standpoint), I’m stuck with AT&T, best known for dropped calls and clogged data pipes. Not to be ignored are the host of new Android-based devices that have started coming online. So, I’m waiting to see how things shake out over the next few months, and whether a clear winner emerges. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So you’re not convinced you, too, are behind the times and need some proof. Here goes:

It’s an app world—There’s no denying we are in the beginning of a mobile and social revolution. Whether your goal is to stay plugged into pop culture or keep your business skills honed, you had better embrace this brave new world or risk being left behind. Mobile apps have become an integral part of our culture, and almost all companies—from mobile pure plays and social media upstarts to large e-tailers starting to execute a mobile strategy—build for the iPhone first. That has translated to 100,000 apps in the iTunes store and over 2 billion total downloads as of November 2009, compared to just 5,000 applications in BlackBerry App World.

Wired vs. wireless—If your employer doesn’t “sponsor” your BlackBerry (if you work for a small company this may also apply to you), you likely connect to a BIS server to receive e-mail and connect to the Internet. That means keeping your schedule and contacts up to date between your BlackBerry and computer requires syncing the two via BlackBerry Desktop software, which despite having reached v5.x, constantly requires removal and reinstallation. But I digress. The main point is that like the RAZR, USB is so 2007. Apple has wireless syncing and backup options for all iPhone users. And, as industry experts expected, Apple is making inroads in the enterprise market. After all, if the necessary security measures are in place, IT managers will simply strive to meet the needs and wants of their customers (i.e. company employees).

Brand perception—In late December, the BlackBerry e-mail network suffered two outages over a two-week period. RIM’s service disruption was an aberration, but users were outraged and analysts criticized the company for not having adequate server backup measures. Following the outages, BlackBerry’s Buzz score fell to +28 (positive brand perception scores range from +1 to +100), a number I’d classify as mildly positive. Contrast RIM’s normally reliable service with that of the iPhone; especially in urban areas people are plagued with dropped calls and poor bandwidth on a daily basis. You could argue AT&T’s network, and not the iPhone itself, is largely to blame. But at the end of the day, you’d expect people to associate their frustrating experiences with all brands. That is not what happened. In 2009, Phone gained the top spot on Vitrue’s Top Social Brands list and Apple moved up 4 notches to #20 on Interbrand’s Best Global Brands list.

The Web is our lifeline—Can you imagine life without Google? Americans have become dependent on the Internet, with 253 million of us (74 percent) using it, 48 percent more than one hour per day. As a nation constantly on the go, it’s only natural mobile Web browsing eventually would take hold. What we lacked until the late 2000s was a mobile experience resembling that on the PC. Together with prevalent 3G access, iPhone’s clean, user friendly interface is largely credited with accelerating adoption of mobile Web browsing. Early last year, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported 56 percent of American adults had accessed the Internet wirelessly, and this number has surely increased since. Today, despite a global recession, smartphone shipments are projected to grow by 18 percent in 2010, totaling 235 million units worldwide. Virtually all of these phones have GPS, pegging your whereabouts and enabling a whole new class of valuable content and services, appropriately labeled location-based services (LBS). With approximately 50 percent of US smartphone traffic, iPhone is uniquely poised to capture the lion’s share of the benefit. Android is the only other operating system gaining share over the preceding 6 month period. BlackBerry is among the losers, dropping 11 percent.

Let the market be our guide—You bankers still not buying it? Well, let me speak in a language you understand. While BlackBerry’s stock (NASDAQ: RIMM) is up 80 percent since the Nasdaq market low in early March 2009, Apple’s stock (NASDAQ: AAPL) is up 130 percent during the same period. Granted, Apple also makes and sells Macs, not just smartphones. But as the mobile device market is growing faster than the PC market, you might expect that would have had a dilutionary effect, curbing otherwise greater growth in Apple’s share price.

Synergies for Apple loyalists – Like all Apple software, the iPhone platform is proprietary, leaving the door open for Google to enter the market and gain share with open source Android. That said, there are many benefits, ranging from software compatibility to a seamless user experience, for Mac users choosing the iPhone.

The Perfect Storm

By now, hopefully I have most of you on board, but what does it all mean? How bad is it for RIM? Well, on paper today the picture doesn’t look bad. BlackBerry is in the lead at 42 percent of the US smarphone market with Apple climbing to 25 percent. But the future holds a very different picture. In Q409, when BlackBerry had 13 smartphone models for sale, iPhone and Android were the only two operating systems that gained market share. IDC predicts that by 2013 Android will displace RIM as the number two operating system globally, shipping an estimated 68 million units. With such scale, Android will join Apple in making serious inroads into RIM’s base of enterprise customers. If the long-rumored agreement between Apple and Verizon Wireless were ever to come about, the result would be a crushing blow to BlackBerry.

But RIM still has time to reposition itself. How?

Focus, focus, focus

I’ll start with what I believe is a fundamental flaw in RIM’s strategy. The company treats the market as very fragmented and hence develops multiple devices (Pearl, Pearl Flip, Bold, Tour, Curve) to cover the entire landscape. For all intents and purposes, Apple has a single phone with options for additional memory, a faster processor, etc. While RIM prices its higher end phones for the corporate jetsetter, Apple makes its one phone affordable for the masses. BlackBerry would do better to save R&D costs and channel its resources toward fewer phones while obsessing over user experience. Being a purely mobile company without the distractions of other business lines has its advantages.

Don’t be a copycat

While BlackBerry has much to learn from Apple in terms of focus, I’ve never been a fan of mimicking your most successful competitor’s design and feature set. This holds especially true against a formidable brand like Apple, which will trump you in aesthetic and marketing savvy nine times out of 10. Sure, there is room for some manufacturers (a la Samsung Mythic and Palm Pre) to siphon off price sensitive market segments. But RIM is in a different category—it’s a smartphone industry pioneer capable of doing far more than developing cheap iPhone imitations like the Blackberry 9500 (aka the Storm).

Now in its second generation, the Storm was an unsuccessful attempt to steal Apple evangelists and wannabes. Despite a $100 million marketing effort and availability on a far superior network, the buggy Storm shipped about half of iPhone 3G’s 2.4 million units in the first three months post-launch. The second generation Storm (aka Storm 2) launch in Q409 was a non-event, because Verizon (and partner Motorola) placed its $100 million bet on The Droid, the first Android 2.0-based phone, which debuted around the same time. I don’t have Storm 2 shipment figures handy, but my best guess is they are far less impressive than the original Storm. After its failed attempt and given the huge lead Apple has garnered, BlackBerry should leave the touchscreen to others.

Go back to your roots

Shifting gears from what not to do, BlackBerry should return to its core strengths, developing devices that boost productivity, while considering changes in the market and technology. Favoring BlackBerry, which is perhaps best known for having a QWERTY keyword front and center on almost all devices, is the fact that entering text on a mobile device is only increasing in importance. Uses have expanded beyond dialing their phones and typing e-mails to include SMS, Web searches, social networking profile updates, completing Web forms, and more. The problem for BlackBerry arises when its function-centric devices compromise the user experience for other emerging consumer needs like multimedia entertainment and mobile gaming, which are forecast to yield $77 billion in combined revenues by 2012. Devices like the Palm Pre and Motorola Droid seemed to have this solved for now, albeit with a slightly thicker form factor. Now you can have the best of both worlds, a viewable screen that extends the length of the device and an accessible QWERTY keyboard hidden underneath.

How Boston can help

So is the solution as simple as that? Not quite. First, this is a short-term “patch.” Second, BlackBerry has plenty of catch up to do in its user interface. In the medium to longer term, these efforts will fall far short in a head-to-head battle with Apple + Google. No, BlackBerry needs iPhonesque disruption. Where better to look than a city quickly becoming a mecca for mobile?

Boston is home to two best-of-breed speech recognition technology companies, Nuance Communications (NASDAQGS: NUAN), a publicly traded company whose market cap is greater than $4 billion and whose roots date back to 1992, and Vlingo Corporation, a Cambridge-based startup backed by Yahoo!, AT&T, Charles River Ventures and Sigma Partners, among others. Until now, the term “hands-free” was really a misnomer; you couldn’t accomplish much without your device in hand. But with advances in both text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology, these companies have developed commercially viable services that allow you to speak commands to your mobile device, have them spoken back to you for validation, and in some cases, receive responses and updates by voice.

Currently Nuance offers Dragon Dictation & Search for iPhone, but the company will undoubtedly come out with Android and BlackBerry apps before long. Vlingo is already available for BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia S60 and Windows Mobile devices, with specific functionality varying by platform. The most feature-rich app is Vlingo Plus for BlackBerry, which allows customers to use voice for any task where they’d normally have to type. Both Dragon and Vlingo are shockingly accurate in deciphering speech even with a moderate level of background or ambient noise. Even as third-party apps, there’s a whole lot of value to the user. Now imagine if BlackBerry deeply integrated the technology into its operating system and invested in its continued advancement.

Will physical and/or virtual keyboards disappear any time soon? Not likely. But in my view the Nuance and Vlingo apps are the types of productivity applications that could serve as catalysts for BlackBerry to re-emerge as an innovator, charting its own path to success.

Nov 252009

Poor customer service is one of my biggest pet peeves, and lord knows, we encounter it virtually every day. Here’s my most memorable recent example, largely because of the sheer silliness of the situation. I visited Sel de la Terre Boulangerie, an upscale bakery serving gourmet breads, pastries, sandwiches and coffee.

  • My offense: I ordered a medium coffee in a large cup so that it doesn’t spill in my car.
  • The response: With a straight face, the cashier rang up a large because “we need to charge you for the extra milk you will be using.”

Brilliant! Annoy a customer over a measly…10 cents. Once I realized she was serious (which took an awkward 10 seconds or so), I dropped the extra dime on the counter and walked away, never to return. (There are at least 5 other places within close proximity serving as good or better coffee.)

Now for a positive spin. Because of this experience and countless others like it, we have come to expect such treatment, which is why it’s even more noteworthy when someone representing a company or brand surprises and delights you. And since the Thanksgiving season is all about showing gratitude and giving thanks, I want to call attention to someone, who on multiple occasions, has gone way above and beyond in providing me with superior service. His name is Kyle Cunningham, manager of the AT&T Mobility store at the Natick Collection in Natick, MA. For all of the legitimate criticism of AT&T’s shoddy 3G network and customer unfriendly policies, this guy makes up for all of it, and then some.

A bit of background. My BlackBerry Bold is near death. Despite OS upgrades, the device is super sluggish, has memory leak issues, and is powered by two almost completely drained batteries. Time for a new phone.

  • The problem: I am not eligible for an iPhone 3Gs for another 5 months, and the “powers that be” will make no exceptions to this policy. Sound familiar?
  • The solution: The best offer AT&T could make is $399 for the 12GB version, and only if I extend my contract for another 2 years. That is $200 more than the price I’d pay if I were eligible.

Sheer stupidity. I can cancel my account for $175 ($24 less), walk over to Verizon–whose network is far more reliable–port over my mobile number, and get a brand spanking new Motorola Droid for $200 with a 2-yr commitment. In other words, AT&T is telling a customer who has always paid on time, has 2 accounts (my wife is also a subscriber), and spends well more than the monthly average, that it will give him $24 to take a hike and go its biggest competitor. I guess AT&T doesn’t use CRM, segment its customer base, or care about retention or loyalty. Or if it does, it doesn’t know how to apply these tools and disciplines to real world situations. Maybe instead of spending time, money and resources on suing Verizon for false advertising, AT&T should focus its efforts on serving its customers.

Now that I got the marketing jargon in, back to the story. Despite it all, I am still with AT&T, because quite simply, Kyle provides the absolute best customer service on the planet. Having worked for mobile app company, WorldMate, I called on Kyle countless times over the past two years. In this particular case, Kyle not only did everything in his power short of risking his job, but he also offered to lend me his virtually brand new Bold until I am upgrade eligible. How often do you experience that caliber of service? I am 36 years old, and so far, just once in my lifetime. With nonsense business practices that create negative switching costs, AT&T puts an unfair burden on Kyle to keep subscriber attrition in check. I’m sure upper management doesn’t realize how lucky they are to have him.

In the spirit of the holiday, please express your appreciation to those who’ve served you well in the past year. If we let these folks know and share our stories with others (it’s as easy as a tweet or brief mention in conversation), just maybe kick-ass service will start to become a trend.