3 Innovation Lessons From BlackBerry’s Death Spiral

Disruptive innovation is the art of seeing opportunities when trends shift and markets transition, and the science of seizing those opportunities.

BlackBerry, the corporate world’s beloved, email-with-a-phone-attached gadget had this kind of opportunity in Apple’s recent consumer confidence hiccup. Between the untimely loss of Jobs and a lapse in release of its own self-disrupting product schedule, Apple slowed down a beat.

With the BlackBerry Series 10, it seams, RIM has swung and missed its comeback window.

As Julianne Pepitone of CNN put it, BlackBerry’s simply run out of excuses. Earnings are down, sales of new phones are shallow, stock is down. And the company’s new plan appears to be selling cheap phones in emerging markets before the people in them can afford better phones. Which seems like a bad sign.

Contrast this with what Samsung’s been able to do in the last year with its Galaxy line, notably the Galaxy S3 and S4, and the opportunity cost feels like a twisting knife. It took Samsung literally 12 months to turn its phones into the “new cool,” and the company’s smartphone adoption is up a whopping 7x in two years. Part of that, of course, is clever marketing, and part of it’s good products. But much of it is great timing.

People have predicted BlackBerry’s demise for a while now, but after missing this perfect pitch, I think it’s officially the beginning of the end.

BlackBerry has made some fantastic products in the last decade. Here’s what I think we can learn from its rise and fall:

Different Is Not Innovative, But Innovation Is Different

That sounds like one of Yoda’s proverbs, I know. In the flurry of phone releases over the last several years, BlackBerry tried a lot of things to differentiate itself from its smartphone competition. Think about the BlackBerry Storm that came out a year after Apple’s first iPhone: remember the touchscreen you had to push in to physically click? This was an attempt to make something different, but it felt like different for different’s sake. It wasn’t something people wanted. (And it was incredibly difficult to type with.)

The big difference between Apple “thinking different” and BlackBerry was Apple tended to innovate by taking away unnecessary features (buttons, options, distractions) while BlackBerry and other phone makers trying to outwit Apple filled the crevices of the market withadditional bells and whistles.

Innovation Is Like Chess: You Have To Stay 3 Moves Ahead To Win

In product competitions like the smartphone market (and really any market), incremental, single-feature differentiation is a doomed game. To continuously stay on top, you have to constantly be working on not just the next logical upgrade, but the crazy thing 3 steps ahead. And sometimes winning means sacrificing your queen.

Apple cannibalized its iPod when it released the iPhone, but it changed the entire mobile phone game by doing so. Meanwhile other mp3 makers were stuck on a hamster wheel of squeezing more gigabytes into increasingly irrelevant products. The same game-changing consumer reaction happened with iPad. And every time, BlackBerry responded with a “me too” when it was already too late.

This is why Samsung’s “The Next Big Thing” campaign has been so effective. In addition to releasing good products with good software, the company has positioned itself as the gadget maker that rhymes with “the future.” (While BlackBerry, unfortunately, now rhymes with “the past.”)

In The 21st Century, Form > Features

Quick, how many gigahertz are in the computer you’re reading this on? What’s the speed of your smartphone’s CPU? Hmm… had to look that up? I would.

It’s been years since consumer electronics have effectively differentiated themselves by hardware speeds. Ever since iPod started putting its storage capacity in terms of “number of songs it can hold,” non-geeks have shifted away from tech specs, and we all just expect any product we buy to be fast enough for our needs and “just work.”

That means modern product design is about art, not technology. It’s about user experience, design, feel, and how it makes you look to your friends and colleagues.

This is where BlackBerry excelled for a long time. Initially, its mini Qwerty keyboards were fantastic. And in the business world, you were smart and future-forward if you had a BlackBerry. You were productive and hip. Apple made BlackBerry not so hip, and now Samsung is battling Apple for the hip throne while BlackBerry spirals down the gadget toilet.

Of course, BlackBerry could pull out of that spiral and return to its previous glory. But to do so, it’s going to have to stop playing “me too” and being different for different’s sake, and introduce something game-changing.

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins recently said, “I want to gain as much market share as I can, but not by being a copycat.” Well, it’s not over til it’s over, but now may be his last chance to do either.

Source: LinkedIn


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