iPhone Killers, Blackberries and Chicken Parts

There is an unfortunate tendency to confuse delivering a bunch of ‘chicken parts’ with producing an actual living, breathing chicken.

Blackberry-Chicken-Parts.jpgMG Siegler, over at TechCrunch, has written an excellent article that shines a light on the cycle from hype to disappointment that goes with being dubbed an ‘iPhone Killer.’

BlackBerry Storm, Palm Pre, the G2, and now Droid have all been touted as contenders to the mobile computing crown, yet the iPhone continues to kick butt.

No less, Apple has levered its market leadership position with iPhone (and the iPod Touch) to create a halo effect on the rest of its business, generating bottom line results that are industry-defining (see analysis of Apple’s Q4 results HERE).

Meanwhile, conventional wisdom, shaped by the history of Apple vs Microsoft during the PC Wars, tells us that Android is ‘destined’ to be bigger than the iPhone worldwide.

And to be clear, would-be iPhone slayers are indeed establishing strategic positions that have the potential to become compelling and differentiated within the mobile market. Examples include:

  • Android: We are more open than Apple;
  • RIM: We are more enterprise-ready;
  • Palm Pre: We are more web-native;
  • Android, RIM, Nokia, et al: We are a heterogeneous device platform.

But, alas, there is a fly in the ointment. Many of the above solutions are at a functional stage where they still fail to deliver a ‘more than the sum of the parts’ experience – at a time when Apple is clicking on all cylinders from a product innovation and new product pipeline perspective.

Exhibit A: Blackberry-using Mac Owner on Verizon
Case in point, I am a long-time Blackberry owner (until recently, a 7130e), a Mac owner, an iPod Touch owner and a very satisfied Verizon customer.

What that means when you connect the dots is that I have had to deal with a crappy, bug-ridden data synchronization experience from RIM for a 4+ years, inasmuch as the Mac has been a second-class citizen in terms of Blackberry interoperability.

Yet, these indignities aside, I would be remiss if I didn’t give props to RIM (and the Blackberry) for delivering the first ready-for-prime-time mobile broadband experience (they call them ‘crackberries’ for a good reason).

In fact, were it not for the existence of iPhone, RIM’s satisfactory delivery of the two primary ‘jobs’ that I consider mission-critical with mobile – a good phone and rock-solid solid messaging – might even be good enough for the strategic long-haul.

More to the point, I would argue that RIM could cultivate a software platform play around messaging-aware applications (one of their core ‘unfair advantages’) if they ever got serious about pursuing third-party developers with a clearly articulated value proposition.

That said, they have a long ways to go as evidenced by my first-hand experiences in a recent upgrade to the Blackberry Tour, a device that many feel is the best Blackberry out there.

I would submit that my experiences underscore a hard truth in the age of iPhone; namely, that successful device vendors can no longer deliver piecemeal offerings that ‘mostly work.’ Rather, they have to deliver complete product solutions that work consistently as expected.

But before getting to my thoughts on the Tour, some relativistic table-setting.

What hath Apple wrought with the iPhone?
It’s not so much that the iPhone is the end-all, be-all in mobile computing as much as that when you talk to iPhone/iPod Touch owners, a simple truth bubbles to the top again and again; namely, that the iPhone is the first truly ‘personal’ computer; more personal to its owners than the PC ever was.

Why is this so? Simply put, the iPhone is a great application platform that also delivers a superior user experience relative to any mobile device on the market. This is a by-product of iPhone being well-thought out down to the level of hardware, software and service layer interconnects, inclusive of media and communications functions, developer tools, iTunes media libraries, and a one-click easy marketplace, complete with the not-so-invisible hand of Apple’s App Store ‘governance.’

The end result is some really gaudy numbers relative to pretty much every metric that matters: unit sales (50M devices – 20M iPhone; 30M iPod Touch), applications (100K apps), developer ecosystem (120K developers), downloads (2B app, 8.5 billion song downloads).

At a consumer level, this success translates to 100M credit-card enabled devices (this is Apple’s ‘billing relationship’ with the consumer universe), and market-leading growth and operating margins across the Personal Computer, Media Player, Mobile Phone, and soon, Tablet Computing, device segments.

With one exception (Apple TV), Apple offerings ‘just work,’ all the while continuing to evolve on predictable timeframes.

The Blackberry Tour: Confusing Chicken Parts with Chickens
Blackberry-850.jpgBack to the Blackberry, it is important to note that until the iPhone, the Blackberry was the mobile industry darling.

Why? Because RIM, starting with a very simple device back in 1998 (the Blackberry 850), built solidly executed products for the mainstream enterprise and business segment, a position that they carefully grew into a diversified, yet manageable, set of form factors supported by virtually all major mobile carriers.

In fact, before iPhone they were the definitive example of integrating hardware (the Blackberry itself), software (Sync software, third-party applications) and service (email messaging service), a compelling user experience that enabled the company to grow into a (projected) $14B revenue company.

But, as noted above, the iPhone has set a new bar in terms of user expectations relative to functional integration (across hardware, software and services), third-party ecosystem cultivation, and surrounding product innovation, and as such, the new measuring stick is the iPhone.

To be clear, that does not mean being identical to the iPhone. Quite the contrary. It just means that whatever the device vendor’s core differentiators are, they have to be delivered in a caveat-free manner, with no fundamental gotchas.

BlackBerry-Tour.jpgFlash to the present, and while at the Verizon store trying to help my wife upgrade her mobile device, I end up getting myself a Blackberry Tour. Out of the box, the device feels good in the palm of the hands, which makes for a nice first impression.

In terms of ‘feel of the device,’ the best analogy that I can put forth is that if they were cars, the iPhone would, tactile-y speaking, be a Japanese car (sleek, electrical, minimization of moving parts), and the Blackberry would be a German car (celebration of moving parts, tactile sensation, handcrafted style).

Moreover, the Tour has a decent user interaction model. Traversing up-level and accessing Menuing Functions is simple, and the dashboard UI is clean.

Unfortunately, the problem is that there are several areas where traversal functions have an ALL or NONE feel about them, brute-force modality shifts when stepped leveling would be more ideal and elegant.

Worse, the Tour Device Software has some poorly thought-out data flow models, which is irksome. A simple example is that the interfacing mechanism for setting ring tones has two (seemingly) conflicting front doors.

Further, emails and SMS’s don’t drop to one unified inbox (they each have separate containers), yet Facebook feeds (a nice messaging integration feature) do go to the same in-box as emails. Go figure.

More unbelievably, the process of importing Calendar and Contacts is basically broken. On my first sync, none of this data even imported from my Mac to my Blackberry. Then, more troubling, after a couple of tries, the data import took, but ALL Calendar Events showed up in the Blackberry as being scheduled eight hours earlier, with no obvious way to remedy this.

Similarly, while the Tour has ample storage, and seems like it aspires to be a decent media device, inasmuch as it expressly interfaces with my iTunes Library, this whole set of music import capabilities is also broken. Specifically, only a 15 of the 125+ songs that I designated for import actually imported, with no rhyme or reason for what worked/didn’t, and again, no clear workarounds.

Now to be clear, some of this could be a Mac thing. But that, of course, would seem counter to the very purpose of rolling out a Mac-based Desktop Manager; namely, pursuing the Mac user base (or minimally not losing the intersected Mac/Blackberry owner base), right?

But the good news is this. If Blackberry can get this part of its user experience right and working really well – i.e., get out of the ‘chicken parts’ business, and back to delivering living, breathing chickens – RIM will continue to have a seat at the Mobile Players table.

If not, another would-be iPhone Killer is in the On-Deck Circle, and the Android 2.0-powered Droid (by Verizon) looks like an offering that could carve out a differentiated market (or two), including the Blackberry market, if RIM’s not on their game.

Related Posts:

  1. Android vs. iPhone: Why Openness May Not Be Best
  2. The Right Stuff: Apple’s Q4 Earnings Call
  3. Rebooting the Book: One Apple iPad Tablet at a Time
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