As BlackBerry ceases production, Google re-enters handset race

There was a time, not long ago, when owning a BlackBerry was the mark of a serious professional – someone who was always on, always reachable – well, not any more…

As other firms accelerated their development of business-friendly smartphones, BlackBerry stood still. So it will have come as little surprise to anyone who has followed its fortunes that the ailing technology company intends to no longer make handsets and instead focus on developing software.

The company announced last week that all hardware – including handsets – will now be produced by partner businesses as it focuses on the development of communications and security software in an attempt to reverse its losses.

That announcement preceded by eight days Google’s launch of its own-brand Pixel smartphone, which is intended to take on Apple’s new iPhone 7.

BlackBerry’s decline has been precipitous. The company reached its peak of around 85m users in 2013, but the writing might already have been on the wall. Before the march of the super smartphones, BlackBerry was the go-to handset for a highly-valuable young audience because of its encrypted BBM messaging service. But soon after its peak, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms started to apply significant pressure to BlackBerry as they – and a number of other new handset manufacturers – started to make phones appropriate for business use. From a hardware and UI perspective, BlackBerry couldn’t keep up with its competitors, and in late 2013, BlackBerry ported its BBM service to iOS and Android. This may have been an attempt to keep the messaging service relevant to a modern generation, but it also removed a significant reason to own a BlackBerry handset.

It was a vicious circle: dwindling user numbers meant app developers start to pass BlackBerry by; then fewer users turned to BlackBerry because of the limited number of apps the platform could run. BlackBerry fell into a cycle of handset and OS changes. These included the removal of the iconic keyboard buttons, and ultimately a complete OS migration to the Android system. When Apple added automatic end-to-end encryption in its iMessage service with the introduction of iOS 8 in 2014, there seemed even less reason for anyone to buy a BlackBerry. The announcement of the death of BlackBerry handsets came last week, with subscribers reportedly down to around 23m, compared to an estimated one billion Apple devices in use globally.

So, without BlackBerry, what is the new direction of travel for business use smartphones?

It could just be in partnerships.

On the same day that news about BlackBerry’s change of direction broke, Apple and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche announced a new partnership called Enterprise Next – where more than 5,000 Deloitte advisers will advise clients on how to make better use of Apple products and services.

“iPhone and iPad are transforming how people everywhere get work done,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. “And through this partnership, we’re able to help even more businesses tap into the incredible capabilities that only the Apple ecosystem can deliver.”

Deloitte’s own workforce already has over 100,000 iOS devices in use, running 75 custom apps, demonstrating that the days of iOS hardware failing on compatibility grounds with various enterprise systems could be behind us.

In fact, as CNET points out, Apple has recently announced a number of enterprise partnerships – including deals with IBM, Cisco and SAP – as a way of cementing is foothold on the business smartphone market.

It is smart business; first Apple makes devices that can talk to each other and make it easy for its consumer customers to use – and next it starts to forge alliances, to talk to other firms, to make doing complex business tasks on your phone just as easy as socialising. We’ll have to wait and see how Google’s new phone integrates with other technologies, specifically enterprise technology that Google doesn’t yet own, but they have a lot of ground to make up.

But, as the BlackBerry story shows, first mover advantage is not always decisive. Apple will have to stay on its toes and keep thinking creatively about its approach to protect its market share.