Tango and Cash

Last week, following our CES interview with BlackBerry CEO John Chen, I joined Rene Ritchie for a Vector podcast to talk about What's going to Happen to BlackBerry.

What transpired was "90 minutes of podcast magic", as we dove through various topics, picking up the conversation from our last Vector podcast on What Happened to BlackBerry.

I highly suggest listening to the show, but if you're more the scan and read type, we took the liberty of having the podcast transcribed. What follows is 15,000 words of raw BlackBerry talk. I did some minor edits here and there just to clean up bad transcriptions and cut out some of the non-value added banter. Happy reading!!


Rene: Welcome Kevin Michaluk, founder of CrackBerry.com. When last we spoke, Thorsten Heins was CEO of BlackBerry. I think it was fresh news as we were recording, that they had announced that they were going to entertain offers for a sale.

Kevin: That's right. It was an interesting time. I was actually on a beach in Italy in the summer when they made their announcement regarding seeking strategic alternatives. It took me by surprise, because before that, 2013 appeared to be going pretty smoothly from a BlackBerry fan perspective. Not super smooth - but we got our new phones, and at least some people were buying them. We saw a lot of action on the CrackBerry website. And the initial reviews were better than I expected. They were almost harsher, in some cases, from the hardcore BlackBerry fans than external tech publications. When BB10 launched, it was not as feature-rich on the power-user features that heavy legacy communicators expected, but it was good.

There was still a lot more that we wanted, but 2013 was at least the year when the new phones came. We didn't really know the results for the company yet, though, how many people were buying BB10 phones. When that strategic alternative announcement came out that they were essentially going to put the company up for sale, or at least seek strategic offers, that was the sign that things were not going as well planned.

Then, more recently, you had Fairfax Financial, I think it was in November, make a play, saying, "We're going to put $4.7 billion up for grabs, basically, to buy BlackBerry and take them private."

Rene Ritchie: Just to back up a little bit on how we got there, I have a BlackBerry Z10. I've used your Q10. I've tried the Z30. I've tried most of their devices. They were really in a weird place. One of my friends, a long-time big enterprise guy, he had a BlackBerry 9900 for a long time. They gave him a Q10, and he was utterly lost.

Some people were using iPhones and Android phones. They wanted to get them back on BlackBerry, so they had to provide an experience that was commensurate with a modern smartphone. That seems really hard to both bring your millions of established enterprise customers forward but also give enough to bring back the people who might have left. It seems almost like an impossible task.

Kevin: Absolutely and I think they actually made some of the wrong decisions. When it comes to the visuals of BlackBerry 10, at a glance when you look at static images, static photos of the OS on the devices, there's a similarity. It looks like a BlackBerry. It almost looks a little dated in some respects, where they stayed with more heavily designed icons, that kind of thing. But it looks like a BlackBerry.

But then, for the people who have been BlackBerry users for years, when they pick up this thing and they're moving from a Bold 9900 which was BlackBerry 7 to say the Q10, you turn on the display and it looks similar. And then all of a sudden you're in this gesture filled experience which they're not used to.

A lot of things changed except the visuals. I almost think if BlackBerry made a bigger visual change to the OS, at a glance, more people would be expecting bigger changes in the experience and be ready to adapt to them. But because your legacy users see it and are expecting similarities, all the differences in terms of the UI and all the gestures, they almost complicate the experience more than if they changed up things -- the visuals and user experience -- a lot.

I think for a lot of the users who came over from Android or iOS who are used to touch screen environments, they actually took to BB10 a lot easier. A lot of those hardcore people who left and came back, they love the new experience. But for the legacy BlackBerry users, it didn't grab them and a lot were frustrated.

It's something we heard about the Q10, where a lot of people got it and they've wanted to switch back to their Bold 9900s because for a communication device that was good enough. And they're not getting enough benefit out of the BB10 experience to make it worth that sort of adjustment period.

Rene: So just for people who might not be familiar, the Z10 is basically your full screen touch device, similar to an iPhone or most Android phones. The Q10 is the keyboard device similar to a traditional BlackBerry. And the Z30 is more like an Android device. It's even bigger. I forget the size. Is it five inches?

Kevin: Right. That's a five inch display on the Z30 and the Z10 is 4.2 inches.

Rene: You mentioned the sales and the sales were interesting to me because when we first started hearing about the BlackBerry 10 launch I watched all your interviews, read all your interviews with (CEO) Thorsten Heins. I listened to you talking with Frank...Is it Frank Boulben?

Kevin: Frank Boulben. The Chief Marketing Officer.

Rene: Frank Boulben, from France. C'est magnifique. They talked about having carrier buy-in, carrier support that they were going to have partners that would help them here. That, at least to me, never seemed to materialize. Maybe that's part of what we saw reflected in the sales.

Kevin: Absolutely. It varied a little bit by region and country. I spoke to them, both Frank and Thorsten, before last year's general meeting of shareholders, still in 2012, soon after Frank came on board, before BB10 launched - we had an interview with them.

They were very, very bullish on where the carrier support was. They jumped on the BlackBerry airplane, the senior management team, the head sales guys, and they did their world tour of pitching BB10 to carriers around the globe. From their perspective, it went really well.

Based on what they told me, how they said it, I really believed it. I'm sure they believed it too. I talked to a lot of analysts and guys like that also. One thing I did hear afterwards was it was a little bit the carriers were talking out both sides. BlackBerry's senior guys come into those meetings. They pitch BB10. The carriers are loving it. They give very positive feedback, but then, behind closed doors afterwards, what are they (the carriers) really saying?

It was a case where maybe senior management had a more bullish feeling than what the carriers truly thought, even in those earlier days, prior to launch. Ultimately, that's what transpired, especially in the US, where BlackBerry 10 just never really got a lot of love.

Some of the stores and some of the key markets put some effort into it. We did see that when I was in New York for the launch of the Z10. Other carriers just didn't try at all. Even in that case, as you went through different markets in the States, to different cities and smaller towns, you pretty much had to ask for BlackBerry. You couldn't find it promoted on store shelves.

Rene: What was crazy to me is initially, Rogers, a Canadian carrier, said they wouldn't even carry the Z30.

Kevin: Exactly. We had to revolt on them. Rogers, love them or hate them, they've always been very supportive of BlackBerry over the years. That was one of the first carriers, if not the first carrier, in the world to support them, or at least in Canada.

We were all shocked by that. Since I'm a Rogers customer and I pay them lots and lots and lots of money every month, I was absolutely like, "This has to change now. Come on, guys." Even if it's like order it online or by request, you have to carry the damn phone.