2020 could mark final death of once-iconic BlackBerry

Read time 5min 40sec
BlackBerry didn't innovate fast enough.
BlackBerry didn't innovate fast enough.

BlackBerry, which at one point controlled the global smartphone market, is highly unlikely to rise from the ashes, after its manufacturer, TCL Communication, said this week it will stop selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices later this year.

The once-iconic BlackBerry was one of the first smartphones introduced in the global phone market in 2002, by BlackBerry Limited, formerly known as Research In Motion.

During its glory days, the company controlled over 50% of the global smartphone market, with its flagship keyboard-wielding mobile devices. However, it has since crumbled to having less than 1% market share.

Analysts believe its demise could be attributed to its failure to innovate as it became complacent as the smartphone market evolved, adding that a new partnership aimed at reviving its fortunes would be less likely to succeed.

This week, BlackBerry’s current manufacturer, TCL Communication, announced on Twitter it would halt sales of BlackBerry-branded handsets at the end of August. It also said it would end software support for the phones in August 2022.

“We do regret to share, however, that as of 31 August 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices. TCL Communication has no further rights to design, manufacture or sell any new BlackBerry mobile devices.”

Speculation is rife as to what the future may hold for BlackBerry, with some saying 2020 may mark its final death, while others believe the smartphone brand could still be revived, if it finds a strong partner that understands the changing demands of smartphone owners.

“There may be manufacturers who feel they are able to take advantage of the business-focus of the BlackBerry brand to attempt again to revive its fortunes, but this would be less likely to succeed now than it was in the past,” comments Ryan Smit, MD of technology industry research and advisory firm BMIT.

“On the other hand, the BlackBerry brand has diminished in value over the past decade, to the point that another phone-maker may decide that launching a fresh brand would be a more successful strategy.”

Massive reputational damage

BlackBerry, which was one of the most prominent smartphone vendors in the world, was once worth more than $70 billion, and at its peak in September 2013, there were 85 million BlackBerry subscribers worldwide, according to Wikipedia.

Arnold Ponela, research analyst for mobile devices and image printing and document solutions at IDC, is of the view that TCL’s latest announcement possibly means the BlackBerry brand will disappear, at least for now.

“However, there is a possibility of another revival at some point in future. This leaves the door open to BlackBerry itself, or another brand stepping in to pick up where TCL left off, but based on their historic sales, it looks highly unlikely.”

BlackBerry’s current market share in SA is 0% and globally it’s “less than 1% ‒ 0.00036% to be precise”, he continues.

Ponela believes the popularity of BlackBerry Messenger ensured the bulk of BlackBerry’s earlier success in SA and globally, allowing users to send messages to each other free of charge, something that was not available on other brands.

However, the launch of new mobile instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Messenger, which were accessible to all smartphone handsets, meant a shift away from BlackBerry, resulting in the first phase of its slow death.

“BlackBerry didn't innovate fast enough. When Apple and all other Android phone-makers introduced new operating systems and physical forms for their phones, BlackBerry didn’t follow. That was a huge disruption in the mobile phone market. Other reasons include focusing on the wrong end-market and slow market reaction to competition.”

Ofentse Dazela, director for pricing research at Africa Analysis, says BlackBerry’s fate will depend on whether the company still has appetite to rise from the ashes and continue playing in a seemingly unrelenting competitive smartphone market.

“At the moment, the brand has taken massive reputational damage and it will not be easy to steer the company to its former glory.

“BlackBerry’s manufacturer for the longest time believed its simple design with a small screen will remain unshaken in the smartphone market, and failed to timeously enhance its features amid growing competition from rivals like Huawei and Samsung, which were notably very quick to experiment with bigger devices with touch-screens.”

The BlackBerry KEY2, launched in June 2018.
The BlackBerry KEY2, launched in June 2018.

The rise and fall

Samsung, Huawei and Apple largely dominate the global market for mobile devices, with Samsung accounting for 21.8% of the worldwide market, Huawei claiming 18.6%, and Apple comprising 13% of global shipments as of the third quarter of 2019, according to the International Data Corporation.

In March 2016, BlackBerry lost its dominant position in the market due to the success of the Android and iOS platforms, with its numbers dwindling to below 23 million.

As demand for BlackBerry rapidly declined, in 2016, it stopped manufacturing its own phones and signed a partnership deal with TCL Communication.

However, still in 2016, Facebook announced all apps owned by it, including WhatsApp, will no longer be available to BlackBerry owners. WhatsApp explained this was due to the system not offering capabilities needed to expand the app's features in the future.

“By the time BlackBerry started emulating its peers, consumers unfortunately got to learn the brand will no longer support WhatsApp. That was a deal-breaker and a final nail in the coffin for people to abandon this brand in large masses,” says Ponela.

Discussing consumer demands when it comes to smartphones, Smit says consumers are increasingly looking for an advanced ecosystem (apps, services, synergy with other devices, etc), which come with the phone in addition to the physical features.

“Increasingly, consumers are looking for wearables to integrate into their phones seamlessly, such as an Apple Watch or a Samsung Galaxy Watch, which gives advantages to those that have these products in their range,” says Smit.

“Other features such as camera performance are very important as well as a high-performance CPU/large amount of RAM to support mobile gaming and productivity. Screen quality is also very important these days, with a new focus on high-refresh rates likely being one of the must-have features of flagship smartphones in 2020.”

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