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Paradigm shifts (THE HOYOS FILE)

Pat Hoyos

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Remember when we were the BlackBerry Nation? When we couldn’t bear to be apart from our Crackberries? A few months ago? – Scott Eidler, Washington Post, October 21, 2011.
WHEN STEVE JOBS UNVEILED the first Macintosh in 1984, he stuck a 3.5-inch disk into the slot and announced that everything you would see and hear next would come from that disk and had all been created on the Macintosh.
What followed was (to today’s eyes and ears) an almost laughably slow, simple, black-and-white computer-voiced presentation with the theme from Chariots Of Fire in the background.
But it was revolutionary then. Industry-changing. Paradigm-shifting.
But within a couple of years, Steve Jobs had been forced out of the company he founded, spending 12 years in the computer wilderness, as Apple began a descent into the world of me-too personal computers.
Steve Jobs conceded to his biographer last year that by the time Windows 95 was launched, Apple had lost the battle for the desktop to Microsoft. The new Windows buried it. Another paradigm shift: it would not be Apple who ruled the desktop despite its better, more intuitive graphics approach. It would be Bill Gates’ Microsoft.
Two years later Jobs was brought back into Apple as a consultant and quickly consolidated his power base, soon being renamed CEO. By the turn of the century Apple had roared back onto the scene as a highly successful computer company in the consumer market, with a much smaller share of the business market.
Secure encryption
But a couple of years prior a Canadian company, Research In Motion (RIM), had launched the BlackBerry “smartphone”, which allowed you to read and write email and also “message” people while you were as far away from your computer as you cared to be. It used “radio waves”, but unlike the average radio station, its signals were so securely encrypted that governments also came to depend on it.
Soon BlackBerrys became the must-have phone for businesspeople and began to broaden its reach among young people, who simply had to stay in touch. eMail and messaging set free was a monumental paradigm shift.
In late 2001 Apple introduced the iPod, followed by iTunes and the iTunes stores, which would cause a seismic paradigm shift in the music industry but did not provide any competition for the dominant must-have BlackBerry.
When new “swipe” technology became available, developed outside of Apple, Jobs bought it and, in the greatest secrecy, turned his company on a dime, telling his top people that the swipe tech could make it possible for Apple to revolutionize the telephone.
And it did. How many paradigm shifts is that so far? I must admit I have stopped counting.
Apple released its first iPhone in 2007, with a “gorilla glass” screen that went from top to bottom and side to side. This seemed like a concession to the BlackBerry. A full screen meant – gasp! – no keyboard.
In 2007 a smartphone without a keyboard was unthinkable. While it was cute to have a keyboard appear on the screen when you needed to type, people complained (and many still do) that it was not tactile enough and therefore hard to use.
Apple has to date sold well over 200 million iPhones. A paradigm shift on steroids.
The success of the iPhone, along with Apple’s other products, turned a company that many were predicting would be sold off for parts in the mid-1990s into the largest and most profitable company in the world, exceeding oil companies like Exxon.
Meanwhile, RIM and its BlackBerry have suffered one setback after another.
As Scott Eidler put it, “In one short summer, the fickle [American] nation has wheeled on its heels and cold-heartedly dumped the ’Berry, and now bats its eyelashes at the new boys in town. . . . A year ago, nearly 40 per cent of all smartphone users owned devices from BlackBerry maker RIM, according to the market research firm comScore.
“This summer, RIM’s share of the market fell to less than 20 per cent, while Google’s rose from 17 to more than 40 per cent with its Android. Apple’s iPhone maintained in second place with less than 30 per cent.”
Note that Android software is given away free by Google to smartphone makers, so as a brand the iPhone is still by far the top smartphone seller.
Worries about any impending doom of RIM were put to rest by one commentator, Al Sacco, who wrote on December 14 last year that “RIM’s not going anywhere in the coming year.
“Just because it is struggling right now, with marketshare and customer loyalty dwindling and its foothold in the enterprise losing strength every day, RIM is still a major player in the handheld space and it’s not just going to fall off the face of the earth, taking its BlackBerry handhelds and tablets along for the ride. RIM’s still hanging on, in other words.”
But the next day, according to the Associated Press, RIM said that its new BlackBerry 10, seen as critical to the company’s future, wouldn’t be released until late this year, because they “will need a highly integrated chipset that won’t be available until mid-2012.”
As a result, RIM said, “BlackBerry sales will fall sharply in the holiday quarter.”
Last January, RIM’s founders stepped down as co-CEOs. In February, RIM finally released an upgraded operating system for its PlayBook, which, noted the AP, “allows for built-in email, calendar and contacts on the tablet – features promised within 60 days after the PlayBook’s launch last April”.
Negative reviews
Trying to get into the market created by the iPad, RIM had stumbled badly.
Said the AP: “The PlayBook had received negative reviews because it launched without an email program and the popular messaging service BlackBerry Messenger. The new version still doesn’t include the messaging service.”
With so much going wrong for RIM, could there be a bottoming out? Maybe. Last week, AP reported that “Research In Motion Ltd, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, announced plans Thursday to focus on its core business customers”.
“It was the latest in a series of developments as the company struggles to compete with Apple’s iPhone and iPad and phones running Google’s Android system. . . .
“RIM says it plans to return its focus to its corporate customers after failing to compete with flashier, consumer-oriented phones.”
Going back to its core customers may be what will save RIM and the BlackBerry from extinction.  
But things have changed decisively – it is the BlackBerry now trying to retain its place in a new, ever expanding marketplace where the kingpins are smartphones that did not even exist just five years ago.