With the event now renamed to BlackBerry Live, and BlackBerry 10 phones now on the market and in our hands, I'm doubling it up this year to ten important observations.
There's a lot to cover here, so let's dive right into it. And note, these observations are not listed in any order of importance. They're all important!
1. The vibe at BlackBerry Live was EXTREMELY POSITIVE!
I've been to every BlackBerry Live, formerly BlackBerry World, formerly Wireless Enterprise Symposium conference since 2007, and nearly every other major BlackBerry developer and launch event in between. The vibe this year at BlackBerry's big show was as positive as I have ever witnessed.
This says a lot. I think back to BlackBerry DevCon in the fall of 2011, and I left that event literally feeling sick in my stomach. BlackBerry was in a bad spot, and you could feel it - among the attendees, among the press and I could sense the uncertainty in the eyes of many of the folks from BlackBerry I had known for years. That was former Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis' last big keynote. That was the bottom. It was only a few months later Thorsten Heins was named CEO.
At last year's BlackBerry World you could feel the vibe was beginning to improve, but there was still a lot of uncertainty in the air. It was only Thorsten Heins on stage -- his new C-Level team was not onboard yet -- and we only had the promise of BlackBerry 10. A lot of people felt that would be the last of BlackBerry World and that a 2013 event was not in the cards.
This year, it felt like the good 'ole days again, but arguably better than ever. BlackBerry 10 is now here. I spoke to literally hundreds of people throughout the week, and whether they were developers, BES admins, partners (carriers, etc.), or folks from BlackBerry, not once did I see anything but enthusiasm for BlackBerry. It was a great event to attend.
2. Thorsten Heins' is becoming the Rock Star CEO people wanted
I was in the audience in Amsterdam in early 2012 when Thorsten Heins delivered his first keynote. I actually thought he did a pretty solid job on that first appearance. You could tell he was a genuine and likable guy - he wasn't wearing the CEO mask that so many CEOs do. Compared to the former BlackBerry CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, Heins was a breath of fresh German air. That said, you could also tell Heins wasn't yet 100% comfortable in the spotlight.
At BlackBerry Live though, Heins came on stage with straight out CEO swagger. He was very confident. He had great energy. He still connected with the audience in that genuine sort of way. It was great to see. When Heins was first appointed CEO a contingent of people out there felt RIM should have looked for an external "rock star" CEO vs. promoting from within the company. Having watched the past 17 months unfold, and seeing Heins' performance on stage at BBLive, I couldn't help but think many of those naysayers would take back those comments now.
3. It feels inevitable that QNX is getting rebranded to BlackBerry
When the Bentley rolled out on stage at BlackBerry Live, I expected to hear the word QNX mentioned. That didn't happen though. Instead, what was mentioned was having BlackBerry in the car.
Later on during the keynote, BlackBerry's CMO Frank Boulben went through how they're working to simplify the branding throughout the company, and put the focus on the mega brand - BlackBerry. And then when we saw the Power of BlackBerry 10 video hit youtube (watch it above), what we would normally view as a QNX video didn't mention the word QNX.
If you visit QNX's website right now at qnx.com, you can see that as of May 13th (according to webarchive.org) they changed up the site logo to now feature the BlackBerry logo next to the QNX logo.
The QNX name carriers tremendous awareness and respect throughout multiple industries, so this isn't a clear cut name change. Given the observations though, it feels pretty clear that the goal here is to ultimately re-brand QNX to BlackBerry. Or at least make the BlackBerry name be dominant with QNX positioned clearly below. To date QNX has been more of its own thing alongside BlackBerry.
Ultimately BlackBerry is trying to build out one mobile computing platform here. Not two. The automotive tie-in to mobile sort of means this branding exercise has to happen if you're going to talk about a unified platform. It's just a transition that needs to be managed carefully.
It's a powerful step for the company to make. As this plays out, the BlackBerry brand moves from being just a maker of phones and tablets to something *much* more. BlackBerry can can go beyond talking about the 80 million subscribers it has and begin talking about the hundreds of millions of / billions of people that BlackBerry technology touches and impacts everyday.
4. The new BlackBerry executive team is here for the long haul
The format of the keynote at BlackBerry Live this year was maybe a little different than what we're used to seeing. Normally, we don't always see the Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Operating Officer of the company come out on stage at an event like this for as long as each did. After Heins started the show, he handed over the reigns to CMO Frank Boulben for his segment and then onto COO Kristian Tear. I thought both Frank and Kristian did a great job. This was the first time we have seen Kristian Tear on stage, and he was a natural.
As for the key takeaway here, I couldn't help but feel that this was partially meant as a signal for the investment community and the press. To me the message that came across is that Heins is very proud of the leadership team he has assembled for what I refer to as "the new BlackBerry" and that they're planning on being around for a while, so everybody better just get used to that fact. In other words, get to know these faces - the company is in capable hands and we're here for the long haul.
5. BlackBerry still needs a CTO
One thing that jumped out at me during the keynote was that BlackBerry currently does not have a person sitting in the position of Chief Technology Officer. CEO, CMO, COO, CLO, CFO are all covered. Under the old BlackBerry we had David Yach in the CTO position and Robin Bienfait in the CIO position (after she left earlier this year that now seems to be under Tear's COO responsibilities), and of course CEO Mike L was also known as the "tech visionary" on the team. Of course, the always awesome Dan Dodge is still onboard - but his LinkedIn profile still reads CEO, QNX.
Of course, there's no hard rule on the structure you need at the top of the company as long as you have the talent when and where you need it. That said, with a company like BlackBerry that is so front and center in a competitive tech space it sort of feels like there is room for one more person on the slide above with Chief Technology Officer under their photo, whether it's Dan, or BlackBerry looks to supplement their talent with one more person. As Heins pointed out, they definitely have a "global" leadership team, bringing together people from all over the world. Maybe they can push this even further - let's find a female Silcon Valley-based CTO who's originally from England (or somewhere with a smart sounding accent). BlackBerry can make the already-diversified executive team even more well diversified.
6. The app gap is closing, but not as fast as we'd like
We're definitely seeing some momentum on app and gaming titles coming to BlackBerry 10, but I was hoping at BlackBerry Live we'd get an update on some of the BIG apps that people are waiting for. Namely, Instagram and Netflix... the remaining two of the "big three" apps that the CrackBerry community has been wanting to see on BB10 since long before BB10 launched (Skype is now here).
Thinking back to the January 30th launch event, I had high hopes that by BlackBerry Live we'd really be in tip-top shape on the app front. Progress is definitely being made - the word is 120,000 apps are now in BlackBerry World for BB10 -- but there still is a way to go. And all the time new apps are coming out that catch people's attention (Candy Crush, anyone?). BlackBerry Live is the biggest event of the year for BlackBerry, so if there was a really positive update to provide on the big name apps, this would be the place to do it. I left the show feeling like this is still BlackBerry toughest challenge to overcome on the consumer side of mobile.
7. There's still a lot of love for BlackBerry from the BES admins and business guys
When I go to this event, I always look forward to the catching up with the "regulars"... the attendees I see year after year after year going back to 2007. I know them pretty well now. On the BES Admin side, I'm talking about guys who are in charge of keeping the phones running for some of the biggest and most important companies, government organizations and people in the world.
On the business side, there are also a lot of software entrepreneurs who attend the show. These individuals did extremely well on the B2B side in the BlackBerry hay days, who are looking for the company to make that big second coming. None of these guys pull punches. When they're not happy, or they think BlackBerry is screwing up, they're very vocal about it to me. When they're excited and see opportunity, they'll tell me that too.
At this year's show I was pleasantly surprised to see optimism and even excitement from all these individuals, especially given that last year many of these guys weren't so certain we'd be seeing each other again this year. Last year everybody was hoping BlackBerry would pull through, but given the news headlines at the time, it just felt like a business event may intervene at some point before BlackBerry 10 would ever launch. At the event it was announced there were already over 10,000 BES 10 installations globally. Those are solid numbers, and it's a positive sign for BlackBerry's continued success within the enterprise space, even with competition heating up there.
I always maintain this feeling that even if BlackBerry's efforts in the consumer space went all to hell for some reason, that the company will be around for many, many years to come based off its expertise and relationships in enterprise.
8. Things always seem to take longer to execute than they should
Q10s hitting the USA in June instead of May. No word on the BB10 for PlayBook update yet (assuming it's still on the way). No update to Jellybean yet for the Android runtime on BB10. No headless apps for developers just yet. You get the picture.
As an outsider who's been a close observer of BlackBerry for many years, it definitely feels like the company is getting much better at execution. No matter how you slice it or dice it, the fact the company built a new platform in two years is impressive. That said, the competition is not standing still and BlackBerry has to keep the pace up if it wants to claw back market share and kick start some new growth. It still feels like BlackBerry is lagging behind its announcements a bit too much in terms of when it ultimately delivers.
I'm looking forward to the day where the lag time between announcements and shipping is next to nothing.
9. The mobile computing story is getting more clear, but it's not crystal yet
This point came up in the CrackBerry Forums when we were discussing the things we didn't get a BlackBerry Live. Quite a few members pointed out that they expected to learn more still about what this BlackBerry future of mobile computing is going to look like.
We definitely have been given clues. The Bentley demo shows how BlackBerry in automotive is connecting back to mobile devices (this we knew already though). And we're getting a lot of discussion about how BlackBerry wants to be and is going to be that glue that connects all of these digital endpoints together.
I guess the bottom line here is that while we're liking the direction all of the mobile computing talk is taking us, we want to see how that is ultimately going to translate into products and usage cases beyond what we know today. It's not crystal clear just yet.
10. The new BlackBerry is a LOT more Fun
BlackBerry Live is now a really mixed event, from BlackBerry fans and developers, to BES admins, carrier partners and everything in between. Looking back to 2007, it was all suits in attendance. There was definitely fun to be had back then too (carriers always know how to throw a party), but it was just *different* than it is today. The BlackBerry presence always felt reserved. #TEAMBLACKBERRY now knows how to loosen up and have a good time.
Heck, look how far things have come for us. In 2007 I couldn't get a press pass into WES. This year? We we were able to get permission to have our own CrackBerry Live setup in the main BlackBerry Live area. Freak'n. Awesome.
Until Next Year...
There you have it. 10 important observations coming from BlackBerry Live 2013. Did I miss anything? I'm sure I did. Feel free to toss your thoughts in the comments. The next BlackBerry Live is a year away, and I'm already looking forward to it!
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