This. This is the Typo keyboard. It attaches to an iPhone, adding a hardware keyboard to the bottom of the phone. The Typo isn’t awesome, at least according to the reviews it had when it launched. But, this could have been huge for Blackberry. Huge as a product, huge as a brand reigniter, huge in getting people to think about Blackberry more than just in the past tense. Huge.
A Little Late to the Party
Blackberry, is that still a thing? Yes, somewhat in certain parts of the world, but less and less everyday, especially in the US. These days, Blackberry seems to be content with battling with Microsoft for a couple of percentage points of the mobile market, a battle they are doing poorly in. Recent statistics have Blackberry’s marketshare at less than 1%, worldwide. In the US, their market share is basically non-existent, a rounding error.
So, why are we talking about them now? Well, for one thing, it is amazing to pause for a moment, and reflect on the husk Blackberry has become. It’s amazing, arguably the company that invented the smartphone market, and not that long ago, that has become such a shadow of its former self. I cannot think of a better example of a company not adapting with its markets and so quickly being left behind by them. Once an industry juggernaut, now reduced to a cautionary tale, a butt of jokes and ridicule.
I am not here to bash Blackberry. The reasons for their decline, in my opinion, can be just as easily chalked up to tone-deaf mis-management, as to lots of bad luck in a market simply that swiftly moves away from the players who no longer can competently serve it. The mobile space is brutal, and at least some portion of success simply comes from luck. Things in this market move so fast that no company can dominate it, on purpose, for long. A lot of things have had to go their way. For Blackberry, a lot of things have not gone their way.
The truth is, I, like many others, fondly remember my time with my Blackberries. Back in 2007–2010, I loved my Blackberries like an appendage. As a long-form thinker, I loved the ability to smash several hundred words onto that great keyboard, mostly error-free, and fast. The Blackberry perfectly fit me, especially in how it moved at the speed of my thought. It was the perfect tool, at once accentuating and concentrating the effort I put into it. Even now, in 2014, a part of me pines for the days of having a hardware keyboard, where text correction was a convenience, not a necessity.
So, I know Blackberry is a has-been, and I am a little late to the party in discussing them. But, I do think there is something interesting about this particular example, this particular misstep. Sure, there are many, many missteps we could look at that Blackberry made, but in particular, I think this one is interesting, poignant, relevant to where they are currently, and a cautionary tale as to what other companies in their shoes could do to avoid the same fate.
Blackberry Is The Keyboard
Looking back, there is nothing that the Blackberry did that would be all that exceptional today. Modern platforms (e.g. iOS and Android) are, clearly, heads and shoulders better for organizing the information diet of the modern life. However, if there is one thing modern devices cannot do as well, for some at least, it’s data entry.
Sure, there are a lot of people who would argue that a soft keyboard works at least as well, if not better, than a hardware one. And, in some respects this is true. By not having a hardware keyboard, more device real estate can go to the screen, the true interface with the device. Plus, by having a “soft” keyboard, it is possible to have multiple keyboards, and input methods, on the same device. From swiping, to thumb typing, to voice input, and on and on. It is true that a “soft” solution is more flexible and adaptable than a “hard” one. However, for some, a hardware keyboard holds a certain magic to it, one that despite years and years of effort, cannot be even remotely replicated on a touchscreen device. Personally, I find myself typing less on a “soft” keyboard than I would on a hardware one, expressing smaller versions of ideas than I normally would. For texting and other short-form media, that’s just fine, brevity is appreciated. But for things that require detail, like my own notes, I truly miss the feel, performance, and overall experience of a real keyboard.
The fact of the matter is, a big part of what made Blackberry what it was, was that keyboard. The Bolds were famous for their amazing keyboards, but the more consumer-focused devices (e.g. The Curves) were no slouches either. Blackberry knew keyboards, that much was obvious, and executed them better than anyone else.
Knowing this, you have to wonder how another company, a start-up no less, beat Blackberry to building a keyboard for the iPhone. Clearly, Blackberry has world-famous keyboard prowess, and if this market need existed, how did Blackberry not only miss it, but not be the first-mover? This sort of product is Blackberry’s wheelhouse. Surely, a company of Blackberry’s size can afford all of the market research they want, and surely this need must have been known. And, to add insult to injury, when another company did build a keyboard for the iPhone, they (clearly) aped the Blackberry design in the process. Sure, they got sued for it, but if this is the product the market wanted, a Blackberry keyboard that you can attach to another phone, why didn’t Blackberry just do it first? This is a problem Blackberry could have solved quite elegantly, so you have to wonder why didn’t they?
So Why Didn’t They?
So if Blackberry could/should have made this, why didn’t they? Good question. It could be that this simply wasn’t in-line with where they were going. Or, this was just too small, that Blackberry needed a home-run and a product like this is a solid-single, at best. Or, maybe ego got in the way, that Blackberry shouldn’t have to cater to users on other platforms, that they were above “slumming it” by going, hat in hand, to markets that have moved past them, begging for another look. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same. Here we are, at the end of 2014, with still no viable hardware keyboard solution on a modern, mainstream smartphone. For those who want one, Blackberry could have been a hero. Instead, what we get is the continuing narrative of a company that cannot seem to escape the gravitational pull towards their own ultimate destruction.
But What If They Did?
If Blackberry had built this, if they had taken their keyboard expertise and put it towards it’s most logical expression, that is building this type of accessory, there would have been so many upsides. Clearly, the market has moved on from Blackberry, not only its brand, but also what its devices represented. This would have been a way to remain relevant. By designing a solution to a real problem, at least for some, Blackberry could have stayed in the conversation. Sure, after inventing and owning an entire market segment, it isn’t very satisfying to be an accessory maker, for someone else’s devices, but at least this would have been something to keep Blackberry from just being defined as a has-been, as a footnote in smartphone history.
And, this relevance could have other upsides too. By showing you can actually react to current market dynamics, that you can cede the battles you can’t win but are willing to fight for the ones you can, you would cause people to take another look at you. If Blackberry hopes to have another sensational handset someday, something like this would keep the focus from completely leaving them in the meantime. That is, even if Blackberry released an amazing smartphone tomorrow, getting any attention from the market now would be extremely challenging. By being/staying in people’s minds, even if only as a smart, well-thought-out accessory, that would be an attention springboard they could use to pitch their other products. Right now, Blackberry has to pitch anything new from a place of obscurity, obscurity with a tarnished brand that is anchored to the past.
More than anything, a move like this would have bought Blackberry time. It would keep their brand in-mind, as least partially, among modern users. This would allow them to plan their next move, and execute equally as well with it. That is, a well-played execution and launch of an accessory like the Typo would have been a win for Blackberry, a win they could stretch into others.
We’ll Never Know
The truth is, all of this Monday-morning quarterbacking is fun to engage in, as thought-experiments, but we will never really know why Blackberry didn’t make this sort of accessory. Who knows, maybe Typo approached them to build it and they turned them down. If Typo was aping the Blackberry keyboard design, you would think someone would have pitched at one of their meetings to just have Blackberry build it for them. Perhaps Blackberry was planning to build this sort of device and they wanted to let Typo release it first to see what sort of opportunity was out there, sort of as a first monkey in space experiment. Who knows, and the fact of the matter is, we probably never will know for sure why, or why not, Blackberry did or didn’t do anything.
For the future, though, this serves as another in a long line of cautionary tales from the folks at Blackberry. The lesson seems to be, no matter what your place in a market is, whether you are a leader, a has-been, or a never-was, the key is to always leverage your strengths in the current context of the market. For some, that is making a device that, in its newest incarnation, the initial production order is 70-80 million units. For others, it is building an accessory that a certain segment of the market would love you for. Whatever the the fit, learning to lean your true strengths into a market that would appreciate them is probably the smartest thing you can do to keep your device, and your company, from being another cautionary tale.