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What BlackBerry Could Learn From the VW Camper

09/30/2013 05:41 EDT | Updated 11/30/2013 05:12 EST

Smartphone maker BlackBerry is on the ropes and we all know it. Amid the financial turmoil of this once Canadian icon, there was news that the humble VW Camper, itself an iconic brand, is set to be retired at the end of this year.

The introduction of the VW Camper in 1950 could not have come at a better time. As Europeans emerged from World War II to rediscover their continent and their families, the Camper came along. Designed to transport the post war baby boom en masse, Type 2 as it was originally known, followed the best-selling Beetle as a simple, functional people mover. The recent announcement that production is coming to an end offers pause to reflect on its design and cultural impact.

Great design is never just about looks. If it was, we would all drive a DeLorean, fly on Concorde and sit in a Gerrit Rietveld chair. Design is a process by which problems are solved. The VW Camper did just this with a multitude of design innovations. From use as an ambulance to fire engine, work truck and even hearse, the Camper set the auto standard for flex-use. Success soon came and now as the 10 millionth and final production vehicle rolls off the line in Brazil, we can see that this utilitarian vehicle was a platform on which others could design applications.

The Camper connection to embattled BlackBerry is clear. Think less about competitors and markets and more about innovation. VW did not design the Camper to be a better Buick. It was born out of an idea that families were growing and therefore might need something larger to move around in. BlackBerry, after a decade or so of its own remarkable and world beating innovation, seems to have lost sight of its reason for being, and with it, an ability to take informed design risks. Without this, they have been left to focus on being as good as the next Nokia, Samsung or Apple device. A losers game to be sure.

VW did not have an app store for its Camper, but the vehicle has been a platform for a multitude of third-party creativity, from simple accessories such as a map table, awning and chemical toilet to the somewhat strange hot tub conversion and Camper Mini.

Entire cultures, from hippies to surfer dudes, and the more restrained camping crowd, adopted the Camper to reflect its lifestyle, which could be equally manifested in Bob Dylans Freewheelin' counter-culture or English countryside touring. Certainly the Camper could not be described as the Ultimate Driving Machine, with brakes that were famously described not so much to be used, but rather to make an appointment with weeks in advance.

In 1996 RIM introduced the worlds first interactive pager, and the first BlackBerry device followed in 1999. "We knew this was the future. We could see it. All we had to do was keep investing in that future long enough to intercept it," recalled co-founder, Mike Lazaridis, on the investment risk it was taking around the notion that we would all want to send each other electronic missives. For so long the future was wonderful, growing RIM into a $77 billion behemoth. Today, valued at close to a twentieth of this the future does not look so hot.

In the end it doesn't matter who owns BlackBerry, or if they ever make another handset. What is essential is that in their new form the firm can rediscover critical creative thinking and independence in design. Stop thinking about being as good as the next guy and start to dream. BlackBerry's new owners would do well to pick up the VW Camper legacy of innovation and embrace the well-know hippie era phrase, the times they are a-changin'.

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