By Cyrus Sanati
FORTUNE -- Blackberry's decision to make its free messaging service, BBM, available on other mobile phone platforms is a Hail Mary play for a damaged company that pretty much has nothing to lose at this point. By giving away the stickiest feature available to Blackberry's dwindling consumer base to Android and iOS users for free, the company is hoping that it will be able to expand, or at the very least maintain, its once lucrative ecosystem.
It is extremely easy to bash on Blackberry (BBRY) these days. The bunglings of its former management team over the last five years will probably be studied in business schools for generations as how not to do just about everything. But Blackberry is on an upswing of sorts at the moment. Its stock has more than doubled from its lows hit last year, and after two years of development (light years in the tech world) the company is "back in the game" with the launch of its new operating system, Blackberry 10, and a few new handsets, the Z10, Q10, and the recently announced Q5.
Yet despite the recent optimism over the launch of the Blackberry 10 series, the company will almost certainly continue to lose market share in the crowded consumer hardware space to rivals that use Google's (GOOG) Android platform. Phones shipped with the Blackberry operating system made up just 2.9% of mobile phones sold in the first quarter of this year, down 35% from last year, according to new sale numbers released by IDC on Thursday. Phones running Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows operating system outsold Blackberry for what appears to be the first time, capturing 3.2% of the market. But phones running either Android or Apple's (AAPL) iOS, captured 92% of all mobile sales -- with Android garnering 59% of the total market, an 80% increase from the same time last year. With that, Android now runs on 75% of the world's smartphones.
To be fair, those first-quarter sales numbers just reflect eight days of sales for the new Blackberry phones in the U.S. and just a couple of months of sales in Canada. Nevertheless, the public's lukewarm reception to the product -- no one was camping out for the new Z10 -- isn't encouraging. The phone has reportedly passed the 1 million shipped mark in its first quarter of launch, which isn't bad, but isn't great for a company with such huge brand recognition. By contrast, nearly 5 million iPhones were sold in the first week of its launch back in September.
There really isn't much you can do on a Blackberry that you can't do on an Android phone these days. There aren't a bunch of must-have apps that run exclusively on Blackberry, for example. Indeed, Blackberry seems to have surrendered the app development space to Google as it considers the new Blackberry 10's ability to run Android app clones as a major selling point.
But there is one consumer-focused feature that Blackberry offers that no other handset maker or mobile platform has -- its Blackberry Messaging Service (BBM). The service allows Blackberry users to send and receive messages, share files, and even exchange music with other Blackberry users without incurring special messaging charges from their wireless carrier. It has proven to be very sticky in places like Indonesia, Haiti, and Nigeria where wireless service is unreliable.
So imagine the confusion when Blackberry announced this week it was opening up BBM to both iOS and Android users through a free app that will be made available this summer. It seems odd that Blackberry would give up its only truly sticky consumer-focused feature. Some in the geek media called it "surrender," while others saw it as a great move by the company to open itself up to the rest of the mobile community.
The move seems more akin to a company spinning off one of its divisions than anything else. BBM, with its 60 million users, is arguably the most buoyant thing in Blackberry's sinking consumer mobile division. If it remained attached to the ship it would surely drown. But allowed to roam free, BBM could possibly survive as a separate entity -- a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. Survive as what? If BBM attracts enough iOS and Android users it could eventually become a sweet advertising portal for the company -- launching Blackberry as a player in the mobile advertising market. It could also possibly morph into a premier messaging app for companies who want to monitor employee communications.
But in order for that to happen, Blackberry will need to overcome an already saturated messenger app market. Here, scale and location matter. Texting and data plan prices in the U.S. have dropped so low you will be hard pressed to find anyone using a messaging app just to save on domestic text messaging fees. That may not be the case in other countries, but there, people are already using messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype. BBM touts its ability to set up Group chats of up to 30 people, but WhatsApp can do that and so can GroupMe, which is all the rage on college campuses these days. Most of these third-party messaging apps on all mobile platforms so they are ahead of the game with hundreds of millions of users. Unlike BBM, these apps don't require clumsy "pin" numbers to talk with other people; rather they just sync up easily to your phone's contacts and seek out those who have already downloaded the app. Unless Blackberry introduces some amazing new features, it will be tough, if not impossible, to get people to switch to BBM.
Nevertheless, BBM does have a couple things going for it that other messaging apps don't. First it has scale in the third world, which is the fastest growing market for smartphones. Blackberry could leverage its scale to totally dominate the messaging space in certain key markets, such as in West Africa and Indonesia. Secondly, BBMs are sent through Blackberry's own proprietary global data network, which encrypts incoming and outgoing messages and is thus considered "safer" than messages sent through other data networks. Blackberry has confirmed to Fortune that BBMs sent through the iOS and Android apps will travel through its servers and thus will have the same security perks as BBM messages sent between Blackberry users.
It is unclear what the future holds for Blackberry, but the company clearly feels that the potential benefits gained from allowing BBM to grow outside its own platform make up for any potential loss in handset sales. That's a good bet because while Blackberry's flagship phone, the Z10, has received praise from some tech geeks, it is hardly the game-changing product the company needed if it wanted to become a major player in the consumer handset market again. But even if Blackberry folds up its front-facing consumer division, it will remain a player behind the scenes as companies and governments remain dependent on Blackberry servers to keep their data safe. So by letting BBM go, Blackberry's new management may be saving it from a sad and quiet death.
Google's mobile operating system may be getting a boost from -- of all places -- Blackberry.
FORTUNE -- This week's Google I/O conference in San Francisco was disappointingly light on Android news. And it was especially light on new, enterprise-friendly features for Android devices. Instead, it showed improvements aimed at consumers and education institutions. But while Google may not seem focused on making its mobile operating system more attractive to IT departments, MOREMichal Lev-Ram, writer - May 17, 2013 9:23 AM ET
Google's Android and Apple's iOS still make up the vast majority of the market.
FORTUNE -- There's a new number three.
Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Phone operating system has overtaken BlackBerry (BBRY) for the first time, according to researcher IDC. The firm released its quarterly report on the smartphone market, showing that during the first quarter of 2013, Windows devices made up 3.2% of all smartphones shipped. BlackBerry devices accounted for 2.9% of MOREMatt Vella, senior editor - May 16, 2013 10:46 AM ET
Companies are waking up to the power of design to make data meaningful for customers and create better relationships with them in the process.
By Olof Schybergson
FORTUNE -- Companies that have long believed in the virtues of hoarding data are now looking for ways to use it to the benefit of their customers. Big data presents a massive opportunity for organizations across industries to become more transparent and trustworthy, get MOREMay 15, 2013 6:45 AM ET
Startup Automatic wants to make your iPhone your car's cerebral cortex.
By Kurt Wagner, reporter
FORTUNE -- You will never forget where you parked your car again. Well, you may forget, but now your phone will keep you from aimlessly wandering the parking lot. Helping drivers remember where they parked is just one feature of Automatic, a new device users can plug into their car, enabling it to talk to their MOREMay 14, 2013 6:28 AM ET
Yes, Ren Zhengfei wields enormous power over the Chinese telecom giant. But the company's management is far more complex.
FORTUNE -- You may have read that Ren Zhengfei, founder and chief executive officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, has finally broken his media silence. The reclusive CEO gave his first public media briefing in -- of all places -- Wellington, New Zealand, where he addressed security concerns about his company and his involvement in MOREMichal Lev-Ram, writer - May 9, 2013 1:12 PM ET
Tablet shipments were up 106% in Q1 2013, smartphones up 48%, notebooks down 13%.
FORTUNE -- Total shipments of smart devices, which Canalys defines as notebook PCs, smartphones and tablets, hit a record 308.7 million units in the first quarter of 2013, according to a press release issued Thursday.
Unsurprisingly, given recent trends, Google's (GOOG) Android platform dominated the smartphone market, Apple's (AAPL) iOS the tablet market and Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows the notebook shipments.
The MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - May 9, 2013 12:27 PM ET
Despite its more-or-less mundane technology, Apple's device won over women.
By Michael Fitzpatrick, contributor
FORTUNE -- The Japanese were using their cellphones to watch TV, navigate with GPS, download music, make movies, pay bills, and check their emails years before American consumers were doing the same. Japan also had touchscreen phones eight years earlier than iPhone -- the Pioneer J-PE01. And yet it is no surprise that Apple's iPhone was the best-selling MOREMay 6, 2013 12:05 PM ET
Unless, says Bernstein's Sacconaghi, Apple introduces new iPhones this summer.
FORTUNE -- The chart at right represents the worst case scenario for Apple's (AAPL) share of the global smartphone market, as forecast Monday by Sanford Bernstein's Toni Sacconaghi.
Using Apple's own numbers for fiscal Q2, Sacconaghi calculates that iPhone sales grew 7% year over year in a sell-in basis (12% in a sell-through basis) while the overall smartphone market grew by about 36%. The MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Apr 29, 2013 4:51 PM ET
For the first time, says IDC, more smartphones were shipped than feature phones.
FORTUNE -- The headline of IDC's quarterly report on the state of the global mobile phone market Friday was that smartphone shipments, on the strength of their 41.6% year over year growth, overtook feature phones for the first time. The overall cellphone market, by contrast, grew an anemic 4%.
"Phone users want computers in their pockets," says IDC's Kevin Restivo.
With the usual caveat MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Apr 26, 2013 6:47 AM ET
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