Jenn Annis admits she is among a declining number of proud Canadian “CrackBerry” addicts, but she is convinced the much-hyped new handsets running on the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, which debut Wednesday, will lure smartphone users back to the home team.
“BlackBerry isn’t a status symbol anymore. I get ribbed all the time,” said the 32-year-old radio host in Kitchener, Ont., who has been a BlackBerry enthusiast since that interminable red light beckoned from her father’s first smartphone 15 years ago.
“There aren’t a lot of us who are chest-thumping ‘I’m very happy to have my BlackBerry,’ and there seems to be a lot more of those for Android and Apple.”
Annis is on the waiting list to be among the first Canadian owners of the latest iteration of the BlackBerry. But after years of waiting for new devices, many once-loyal users have moved on to iPhones or Androids as their contracts expired and their old BlackBerry models became antiquated.
Research In Motion, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company whose BlackBerry was once the sector leader, now claims only four per cent of the crucial tech-savvy North American market.
It has been on a steady decline in the past few years as competitors such as Apple and Samsung scooped up consumers by ramping up the “cool factor” of their gadgets while BlackBerrys continued to operate on an outdated platform.
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Meanwhile, over the span of 2012, RIM ousted its former CEOs, faced service outages, pushed back the launch date for its new make-or-break devices and laid off about 5,000 of its 17,000 employees, a head count that had already been cut from 19,000 in 2011.
Combined with disappointing sales of its PlayBook tablet and declining BlackBerry sales, the latest woes sent RIM’s stock price tumbling to a low of about $6 a share in September. Share prices have nearly tripled since then, however, as analysts' confidence improves amid BB10 previews and takeover rumours.
Annis is confident the BB10 operating system will put the company back in the smartphone race.
“For me, all of this talk of death and foreboding for RIM seems premature. It seems like, in Canada, we’re really quick to turn on our own.
“I think the 10 will win over people who are kind of on the fence and people who are contemplating leaving but haven’t left yet and people who have left and aren’t happy.”
It may, however, be too late for RIM to win back former CrackBerry addicts such as Virve Aljas, who lost her phone on a plane and signed a three-year contract for an iPhone in October.
“I was a little wary of signing on with something that may not be quite in existence in three years,” the Toronto-based graphic designer said of her decision to abandon the BlackBerry,
“But I like the fact that it’s a Canadian company, and if I knew that they were looking at a little bit more stability, then I might switch back for that reason.”
RIM’s problem is that there are simply too many consumers like Aljas who could not hold out for a new generation of BlackBerrys, says Zeus Kerravala, a tech analyst at ZK Research in Boston.
“They’re working from behind here, and they’ve got to go and create their own demand, and it may take a while. It may take some promotions where they buy people out of contracts; it may take just time to work people through their contracts.”
In the United States – the world’s second-largest smartphone market (falling behind China in 2012) – BlackBerry market share fell as low as 1.6 per cent in October, compared with 8.5 per cent in the same month of 2011, according to the latest sales data from Kanta Worldpanel ComTech.
Even in its home country, RIM has fallen from grace with smartphone users.
BlackBerry lost the title of Canada’s most popular smartphone brand in August to Apple’s iPhone, according to the most recent Ipsos Reid Mobil-ology study.
BlackBerry’s market penetration shrank from 41 per cent in spring 2011 to 27 per cent by the fall of 2012, while Apple grew to 29 per cent from 23 per cent, and Samsung doubled its share to 18 per cent from nine per cent over the same period, Ipsos Reid found.
And the outlook for Canadian BlackBerry sales isn’t any rosier – at least as of October, when the survey was completed.
Among Canadians in the market to get a smartphone, those considering a BlackBerry purchase declined from 58 per cent in spring of 2011 to only 29 per cent last fall. Meanwhile, the percentage of those eyeing a purchase an iPhone was stable at 56 per cent, and Samsung increased to 42 per cent.
However, a series of sneak peeks and leaks into what the new BB10 devices will offer – a large touch screen, user-friendly interface and wider selection of apps, as well as the BlackBerry Balance feature that allows users to switch between business and personal interfaces – that have come to light since the survey was completed have met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, which could sway buyers’ intentions.
And that appears to be spooking some of RIM’s competitors.
Kevin Michaluk, who runs the RIM-friendly CrackBerry website, says Samsung, Apple and other competitors have reason to fear the comeback of the Berry.
“It’s going to come really strong out of the gate,” he said.”The bigger question is: Three months, six months out, after the initial successful launch, are they going to be able to keep continuing with this?”
“It seems like RIM’s working hard, they’ve talked about going after six devices this year and they’re talking about going after the different price categories, so I think once they come out and they kind of re-kickstart everything, it’s going to be like the dark days are over and they’re firing on all cylinders again.”
As enthusiastic as Michaluk is about RIM’s ambition to regain status around the world, he doesn’t think it is going to beat Samsung or Apple any time soon.
“You can have a massively popular business being No.3,” he said.
“Samsung and Apple are going to be your number one and number two. The real goal for RIM isn’t to overtake iOS or Android, it’s to be probably a number three or four manufacturer – even number five in a sustainable position – and I think that’s a very plausible goal, because once you look beyond Apple and Samsung, who’s your next bet? And I think RIM’s as good as anybody.”
Tech analyst Kerravala, another BlackBerry ship-jumper, says that, while there is only a slim chance RIM can regain the market presence it once held, he is “cautiously optimistic” about RIM’s odds of becoming “a third strong vendor” in Canada and the U.S.
“It’s the best device they’ve had in a long time,” and telecom operators across North America have shown support for the BB10, he added.
“But they’ve had opportunities before, and it hasn’t exactly gone their way.”
Still, he believes there is hope for RIM that BlackBerrys can be considered cool again.
In order to succeed, he says, not only does RIM have to position its product as different, it also needs to make a more concerted effort to attract app developers to create demand among non-business users who use their phones primarily to connect socially.
“For RIM to do this, they need to execute well, they need to have the device, and they need to hope that social really does become that anchor application,” Kerravala said.
“I think there’s a good chance it does, but they also have to hope that Apple and or Android slip up a little bit.”