The business smartphone is dead

BlackBerry’s demise signals the end of the business-first handset

Last month, in a low-key announcement on Twitter, the death of the business smartphone was confirmed.

In the post, BlackBerry announced that China’s TCL Communications will “no longer be selling” BlackBerry-branded phones as of 31 August 2020, perhaps an unsurprising development given the once-beloved devices accounted for a mere 0.02% of the global smartphone market as of January this year. 

TCL has said it will continue to support models that are already in the market, such as the BlackBerry Key2, until 31 August 2022, but the end of the companies’ three-year-long partnership undoubtedly marks the end of both BlackBerry and the business smartphone as we know it. 

BlackBerry devices, which were once famed for their physical hardware keyboards and “uncrackable” security software, dominated the corporate market in the 2000s. In 2009, the then Research In Motion (RIM)-owned company claimed more than 20% of the smartphone market after becoming the handset of choice among high-powered executives and the ultimate status symbol in boardrooms across the globe.

This prestige, which saw Fortune at the time name RIM the “world’s fastest-growing company,” can be largely credited to the fact that the BlackBerry offered the first devices to “push email," enabling busy workers to keep on top of their emails without having to refresh their inboxes perpetually. 

“The democratisation of email was a huge priority for business users, and they could do that in the safest way using a BlackBerry,” says Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner. “It was the de-facto email wireless device.”

However, while this focus saw BlackBerry add over 4 million subscribers in a single quarter in 2009, it’s this business-first approach that also lead to the company’s demise and, ultimately, the extinction of the so-called business smartphone. 

“The competition – Android and iOS – soon caught up, and I think BlackBerry failed to recognise this consumerisation of IT and responded too late,” Cozza says. “Apple introduced the touchscreen, for example, and the smartphone became a platform for applications. Other companies were offering more than just a business smartphone, so there was no longer any point of differentiation for BlackBerry.”

Missed signs

BlackBerry, which now sells secure software and services to enterprises, unwisely believed that the corporate world, rather than the consumer, would drive smartphone adoption. However, as its QWERTY-equipped devices failed to resonate in a world that quickly became saturated with touchscreen devices, the exact opposite happened. 

Brian Foster, SVP of Product Management at MobileIron, says: “As smartphones have kept evolving and becoming more accessible, the idea of the business phone has slowly become obsolete as most smartphones are now suitable for business. 

“This has led to the emergence and rapid growth of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD), a model of working where company employees use the same device for both their personal and professional dealings.”

While in BlackBerry’s heyday an initiative such as BYOD would have seemed unimaginable given the firm’s at-the-time market-leading security software, both Apple and Google now proudly tout the enterprise credentials of their respective operating systems, with the latter going so far as to offer ‘Enterprise Recommended’ programme that helps businesses identify which Android phones are best-suited to corporate deployments. 

“The world’s most popular mobile platform, built for business. Secure, manageable, and flexible – Android is ready for work,” Google boasts on its Android website, noting that all devices will receive security updates for three years after launch, keeping them protected from vulnerabilities.

In a similarly styled post on its website, Apple – which accounts for almost 70% of the enterprise smartphone market, according to Good Technology’s latest Mobility Index Report – brags that it creates “products that give employees everything they need to make better business decisions, wherever they are.

“With the most intuitive, secure and powerful products, as well as the hundreds of thousands of apps on the App Store, your team will stay connected, share ideas and get more done”, it adds. 

Ben Woods, chief of research at CCS Insight, comments: “We’ve reached a point where pretty much any mid-or high-tier iPhone or Android phone is ideally suited to both business and personal use.

“Google has doubled down on security for Android smartphones and the operating system now has a whole raft of security features; there is now the Android Enterprise Recommended programme which mandates a number of things, such as security patches, are regularly delivered.

“In the case of Apple, it has a wide range of tools that businesses can use to secure iPhones making them ideal as business devices.”

From the consumer to the business

It’s not just Apple and Google that are looking to win over business users with their largely consumer-first devices. Samsung’s mobile devices, which claimed 21.8% of the smartphone market in 2019, build on Android’s own security features with the Samsung Knox platform, which allows IT admins to secure, deploy and manage mobile devices for business use. 

Beyond this security focus, Samsung in 2017 also took aim at business users with its DeX platform, a docking station that enables its smartphones to offer users a desktop computing experience. 

As Samsung has demonstrated, the downfall of the business smartphone isn’t just due to the increased security credentials of Android and iOS. Employees’ needs have also changed, with younger and more flexible workforces now demanding devices that are powerful, have a dependable battery, and have access to the software they need - be it access to Microsoft Excel on-the-go or the ability to store boarding passes for business travel. 

These are both areas where BlackBerry couldn’t compete. Before it gave up on its homegrown BlackBerry OS in favour of a customised Android experience, the firm long-struggled to match its rivals in terms of both in terms of availability of popular third-party apps; the firm long-insisted on pre-loading its now-defunct BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) app on its devices, failing to realise the growing popularity of third-party services such as WhatsApp

When it comes to hardware, it’s a similar story. As recently as 2018 with the BlackBerry Key2, the company – with its now-irrelevant business focus continuing to dominate business decisions – insisted on releasing devices with hardware keyboards, despite the fact that it had become clear that the majority of smartphone users had moved on and preferred using more convenient touchscreen devices. 

As we said in our BlackBerry Key2 review at the time: “If this was still 2008, this would be a brilliant device, but it's not. It's 2018 and we have amazing touch screen keyboards. There's simply no need for a physical keyboard any more.”

It’s not just its persistence with keyboards that caused the firm to fall behind its rivals in the hardware department. The company did release fully-touchscreen devices, but these were largely mocked as sub-par iPhone imitations. And in a world where the likes of Huawei and OnePlus were starting to show up with high-spec smartphones at low prices, BlackBerry – and its at-the-time partner TCL – continued to peddle out devices with lacklustre specs and uncompetitive prices; the £500 Key2, for example, packed average 12MP cameras and an underwhelming mid-range processor. 

BlackBerry’s demise is perhaps the perfect example of what happens when a tech giant fails to innovate in a fast-paced, consumer-first market. The company’s continued focus on the notion of a “business smartphone” was ultimately flawed; it was late to recognise the changing mobile industry and failed to realise just how influential Apple, which now dominates the enterprise mobile space, would become in the market. 

While the notion of the business smartphone arguably dies with BlackBerry, some will say that it’s not dead at all - it lives on in every modern handset available today

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