A few weeks ago I suggested that 2013 will be Research in Motion's year because Apple and Samsung are weakening each other, Steve Jobs is gone, current Apple CEO Tim Cook is out of his element and malware is hitting the Android operating system hard. In short, while the company is still coming from behind in a market that it once owned, the conditions for a relaunch would likely never be better.
This week I attended the event that launched the new Blackberry 10 phones, renamed the company and announced Blackberry's answer to Steve Jobs, musician Alicia Keys. The company is far from being out of the woods —for starters, most folks won't be able to buy the new phones for several weeks—but this was a strong start down the ever-more-possible path to restoring Blackberry to glory.
How BlackBerry Is Following Steve Jobs' Script
I often think CEOs look at their more successful peers and think, "Gee, if I do what the more successful guy is doing, he may get the credit for my success." Most, then, seem to do their level best to blame others for their eventual failure. Whether in sports or in business, there is no dishonor in using tactics that work. Jobs copied from, and improved on, Louis Gerstner's work and still got most of the credit.
There were three core elements to the Apple recovery: Get people to believe that Apple could return, create and maintain a super advocate (Steve Jobs himself) and simplify the product lines to assure high quality, high margins and superior execution.
The increase in value for Blackberry stock, which doubled prior to the launch, showcased strong behind-the-scenes efforts to convince people that BlackBerry can come back. Alicia Keys came on board to fulfill the role of super advocate and indicated she would be taking a hands-on approach to her product influence. Finally, the company focused on two products, the Z and Q series phones, which will form the basis for the initial turnaround effort.
In Pictures: The New BlackBerry 10 Smartphones
Let's look at the three core elements to a comeback in more depth.
New Name, New Image?
Jobs bent over backwards to get investors on board with his recovery effort. He even went to Bill Gates, who he thought stole Windows from him, to get the initial investment to open the door for others. Later, he removed the word "computer" from Apple's name to make sure people understood the firm wasn't the old Apple and should instead be seen as something new and different.
The executive team at Blackberry has been working overtime to gain the trust of investors who have flocked to the company, doubling its valuation. Changing the name of the company to Blackberry makes sure people see it as new and different. The end result is a company with a product line even simpler than Apple's and a name equally focused on the future.
Can a Celebrity Be BlackBerry's Super Advocate?
I doubt we'll ever see another CEO with this skill like Jobs—at least not at a company the size of Apple or Blackberry. In addition, Cook's tenure at Apple shows the value in separating the role of CEO and super advocate when someone who fills both roles leaves the company.
It's easy to get jaded by the number of celebrities that suddenly seem to by tying themselves to companies. Most seem to be paid shills who aren't really doing the type of product advocate job that Jobs did. Keys, named BlackBerry's Global Creative Director, attests that she's in this for the long haul; furthermore, she plans to meet with BlackBerry engineers to make sure her views are heard—and if they aren't, then she will leave. We haven't heard that level of commitment from other celebrity endorsers, suggesting this may be something more.
Still, without any real authority and a career to manage, we need to revisit this at that end of the year to see if Keys has really stepped up to being a Super Advocate or is just another star looking for some extra pocket money. I think she's sincere, but I've been fooled before.
Z10 Looks Forward, Q10 Looks Back
BlackBerry clearly has a tight focus on the business customer and loyal user. The BlackBerry Z10 smartphone, which looks and feels like an improved iPhone 5, targets the business user, and its initial "showcase" partnerships and apps are with enterprise vendors BMC, Citrix and SAP.
This doesn't mean BlackBerry doesn't have fun stuff, but outdoing either Android or iOS with consumers and entertainment is likely impossible. However, outdoing these platforms in ways that business people will appreciate is a place where BlackBerry is arguably the best in the market.
Finally, like Apple, BlackBerry had to preserve what is left of its very loyal fan base. The Q10 takes the smartphone back to its two-way pager roots with a physical keyboard and an updated industrial design that's still clearly Blackberry.
If Apple Can Do It, Blackberry Can, Too
We often forget that when Apple launched the iPhone, a lot of professionals, including the CEOs of competitors, thought Apple would crash and burn because they believed Apple didn't understand the market. While Apple clearly had more resources than RIM, RIM clearly understood the nuances of the smartphone market better than Apple did when it launched the iPhone. This suggests that BlackBerry's odds of success are in line with what Apple's odds were.
Not all is a bed of roses, though. Unlike an Apple product launch, the new Blackberry phones aren't available closely after launch. Alicia Keys remains untested, too, and BlackBerry has yet to roll out its ad campaign.
Still, as far as launches go, this is one of the better ones I've attended, and BlackBerry will have better carrier coverage than either Palm or Apple had when they started. In short, this no longer looks like RIM's year; it's looking like Blackberry's year.
Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.