BlackBerry under Thorsten Heins: A post-mortem

These were some of the final words investment analysts ever heard from Thorsten Heins, during Q1 conference call that would be his last before departing from the company earlier this week:

I’m so proud, and I’m so happy, that we’ve built our own platform with BB10 that allows us to be different, to be differentiated, to be segmented, to clearly understand who we’re targeting as BlackBerry. Not to be a me-too, based on an open OS and based on an open application framework. That matters to us. That matters to our customers.

In the end, I’m not so sure it did. As Microsoft learned on the desktop after Windows XP, no one ever really cries out for a new operating system. Unless your device is constantly crashing or -- more critically -- if it can’t run the software you need, that’s when you upgrade. And even then, the bells and whistles of the platform are usually of little interest to consumers. It’s the look and feel of the hardware coupled with what’s useful or fun you can do with it. Most of us would barely even notice Heins’s thinly-veiled swipe at Google’s open source Android, because BB10 was never going to be key to BlackBerry’s turnaround.

In fact, looking back at Heins’s ultimately brief tenure as BlackBerry CEO, there is considerable evidence that he did almost everything right, but there needs to be italics on the almost. He brought down costs where they needed to be brought down. He amped up the marketing (ditching RIM for a more natural brand identity) and pushed hard to get new devices and the OS ready for production. He avoided experiments in phablets that probably weren’t worth the risk.

Perhaps more than anything else, Heins radiated a relentless passion around the prospects for BlackBerry’s growth. After the departure of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, it would have been easy for the board to put in place someone that was merely a turnaround specialist, who would stop the bleeding and try to turn BlackBerry into more of a niche player. Instead, Heins continued walking, talking and acting as if BlackBerry was still fighting head-to-head against Apple and Google.

All Heins ever seemed to ask for -- from investors, from customers and possibly the BlackBerry board of directors -- was a little more time. He had a three-phase plan that was curtailed in phase two, and although no one will be shedding any tears for his reported $22 million exit package, Heins probably feels cheated of an opportunity to fully execute.

As much as there was to admire about Heins’s leadership, though, he hadn’t quite pulled off phase two, either. This was the introduction of new products, which included not only BB10 and the Z10 and Q10 smartphones, but the cultivation of apps to go along with them.

During the big launch event many months ago, Heins proudly boasted of having more than 120,000 apps, but it was later revealed that more than one third of them came from a single developer, a maker of city guides called S4BB. This might seem like a small detail, but it spoke to the biggest problem with the BlackBerry mobile experience. The devices aren’t that bad, and BB10 has some incredible features for navigating between functions and apps. But without enough real apps -- apps that integrated so uniquely with BB10 that it made the entire device and OS platform irresistibly compelling -- there’s not enough reason for iPhone or Samsung Galaxy users to switch.

For proof, just look to the fact that BlackBerry’s only real success story this year has been opening up its own messaging app, BBM, to other devices.

Heins was well aware of the huge challenge he faced, but there was also something he seemed to relish about it, which made him, and BlackBerry, easy to root for. “Keep moving,” the company’s slogan said. At a certain point, however, you just have to move on.

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