Black Mercury

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After the fall of Blackberry, RIM still doesn't get it

While we haven’t read the book yet, we have read several of the extended excerpts from LOSING THE SIGNAL: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. Inevitably, much of the focus is on how the iPhone contributed to upending RIM’s business. It’s another “story of disruption”, whereby a confluence of consumer trends is led by a new product that obliterates the once dominant market leader. The narrative brought to mind the infamouvideo of Steve Ballmer being asked his opinion of the iPhone, in which he laughs off the idea that such an expensive phone without a keyboard could ever find widespread appeal, especially with business customers. His answer to the iPhone at the time was the Motorola Q, which he describes as a “very capable machine”, priced at $99. 

While Ballmer obviously didn’t see the unfathomable tidal wave of the most profitable product in history approaching, he also clearly didn’t see why the iPhone was destined to be so disruptive. What he saw was “a machine” that was expensive and that didn’t have a keyboard: a clear matrix of price and features. Unfortunately, his control-alt-delete brain didn’t see how consumers and business users alike would respond to a complete rethinking of the mobile phone. As we know now, the iPhone was created by an incredibly talented team of designers and engineers motivated by the fact that all the smartphones on the market delivered a horrible user experience. In many respects, the iPhone was the first phone that combined an intuitive and simple design with phone, internet, and music playback features. Although it wasn’t the features that were unique, it was the design. 

Based on the excerpts from the Fall of Blackberry book, it’s curious that even today, some still don’t seem to understand what it was about the iPhone that decimated their market position. We thought this quote was especially revealing: 

“By all rights the product should have failed, but it did not,” said David Yach, RIM’s chief technology officer. To Mr. Yach and other senior RIM executives, Apple changed the competitive landscape by shifting the raison d’être of smartphones from something that was functional to a product that was beautiful. “I learned that beauty matters....RIM was caught incredulous that people wanted to buy this thing,” Mr. Yach says.

I guess a case could be made for describing the iPhone as “beautiful”, but we think that description short changes the product’s disruptive power. A few things come to mind: 

The iPhone had the first mobile web browser that didn’t suck. Danger had one that was pretty OK, but it wasn’t as usable and intuitive as mobile Safari. 

The iPhone’s phone calling app was easily the simplest, clearest, most usable interface on any mobile phone. The no-brainer “visual voicemail” had people asking “why hasn’t it always worked this way?". 

While not completely new, the integration of multi-touch throughout the UI introduced a new and incredibly intuitive model for browsing the web and looking at pictures. 

While there are many points, just these three things made a huge contribution to “a better user experience”. Better than the Motorola Q, better than Blackberry Storm, better than the Nokia N95. We think calling these contributions “beautiful” is short-sighted, and sounds a bit like the pundits who attribute Apple’s success to “clever marketing” (though there’s certainly some truth to that, too). What’s important about the iPhone, and what was immediately clear when Jobs revealed it onstage in 2007, is that it’s a commitment to simplicity and design. Like the iPod before it, it was a rethinking of what a product within a given category could be, with an emphasis on making an experience that’s holistically intuitive, pared-down, and streamlined. Maybe with some beauty thrown in for good measure. 

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