Blackberry: Do You Understand Consumers Any More?

Blackberry held its local launch of Blackberry 10 and the Z10 yesterday, complete with glitzy production and CEO Thorsten Heins. The focus was squarely and absolutely on business over all else, which leaves me wondering what the consumer hook for Blackberry is meant to be, precisely.

Blackberry has long had a foothold in the enterprise and business space, so it was no particular surprise that the launch yesterday was heavy on the BYOD and enterprise talk, and notably lightweight on the consumer side of things, beyond a little lip service paid to the consumerisation of technology -- and even that within the context of how businesses should adapt to them.

There's nothing wrong with that per se, and indeed there's very little wrong with the Blackberry Z10. It's one of the few phones that I've been genuinely impressed with this year, as once you get past the new gestures learning curve it is indeed a slick operating system geared most strongly towards information junkies.

Still, Blackberry is very much sticking to its knitting by playing to the business crowd, and this became apparent during a press Q&A held just after the launch, where it appeared Heins had to be reminded who Neil Gaiman was by local Blackberry MD Matthew Ball. I'm pretty sure that Ball leaned over and tried to whisper "He's the writer" -- it appears that Heins can remember and namedrop Alicia Keys repeatedly, but the other members of the Keep Moving team are less memorable or something.

Mind you, Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins is a remarkably clever bloke, and one who doesn't tend to say anything he doesn't mean. When he says he views iOS as being behind the times, I believe him -- or at least that he believes what he's saying. At a press Q&A yesterday, despite talking quite a bit, he didn't actually say all that much, turning many questions around, or simply stating that many things were challenges that Blackberry had to rise up to meet. When directly asked about the consumer appeal for Blackberry Z10, he had this to say

"What matters today is the messaging part; whether you're private or in business. Multitasking applies to consumers, (as well as) story maker, timeshift camera. If you do photo editing; normally you'd load a photo or movie editor; this flow that we have around enterprise also applies to consumer apps. What Blackberry does is the flow across apps; it can be consumer applications, not just enterprise. It's a design imperative for BB10 that we put out there everywhere. Timeshift gets us good feedback, story maker gets us very good feedback."

Blackberry's inbuilt photo and video editing apps are quite nice, but there's a real issue there, I think, in getting consumers across the line to actually purchasing a Blackberry, and it's that single app differentiation isn't much of a differentiation point at all.

HTC's One does Timeshift a little better via Zoe than Blackberry does itself. There's no shortage of competing video editing applications either. Blackberry 10 may have underlying software architecture around the hub concept that others will find hard to mimic, but photo and video editing aren't enough to make a compelling consumer offering.

One factor that made previous Blackberry generations attractive to consumers was that for a single, generally low access fee, most of the things you'd want to do online were effectively quota free. You had to go through a Blackberry service, which meant it wasn't always dazzlingly fast, but then again RIM's data optimisation often meant that it was comparable to existing services.

That option no longer exists with Blackberry 10; while the company is keen to point out its strengths in messaging, the fact that every message is coming out of your quota is something of a bitter pill if you're a long term Blackberry fan. The official company response when I raised this was that Blackberry figures that it's a tradeoff between that convenience and the speed of LTE, and they went with speed.

Consumers are keen on tablets, but Heins remains pretty adamant that it's a market that Blackberry won't rush in to be part of, stating that

"Tablet from my view -- in a hardware perspective -- is a very difficult business. There's one company, and kudos to them, and they own the majority of the market. There are other companies that treat them as a product window; if I build a tablet I will not build it for the hardware. I will build it around an enterprise service or a consumer service. Pure hardware alone is a cutthroat business."

So no tablet in the near future, it seems, and little in the way of direct messaging to consumers. I like Blackberry, I approve of the idea of having as much competition and innovation in the smartphone space as possible, and the Z10 is a nice phone. Still, it seems to me that Blackberry is viewing the consumer market as a secondary consideration at best.

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