BlackBerry’s pitch to get back into the warm embrace of corporate IT shops seems logical enough at first glance: We’re the most secure in mobile. Mobile is where all of your data and interactions are heading. Therefore you should give us all of your corporate business.
But when you take a closer look, the argument crumbles. It’s not going to arrest BlackBerry’s plummeting enterprise market share.
BlackBerry still has some good selling points on the security front, and it hits all of those in the current campaign, arguing that BlackBerry phones have better security because they protect not just data, but voice, email and text communications as well. Of course, BlackBerry has cited security as its great differentiator for years, to no avail, and this new campaign probably wouldn’t have a chance of reverberating beyond its core markets in areas such as finance, healthcare and the military if that were the extent of the message. So BlackBerry, like a flailing politician far behind in the polls, turns to that old standby, fear. It cites headlines about cyberattacks, the implication being that BlackBerry phones could have saved the day. The problem is that — well, no. None of the security disasters cited involved cellphones at all.
I hope BlackBerry doesn’t think it’s going to fool enterprise decision-makers with this argument. It doesn’t survive close examination any better than a residential developer who tries to sell homes in a neighborhood that has had a lot of burglaries by touting steel bars that protect furnace exhaust vents. “That sounds good,” you say, “but have any area burglars used that hole to gain access?” No, the contractor says. “Then why don’t you instead protect the means of entry the burglars are typically using?” Because that’s not our differentiator.
Well, a company in as much trouble as BlackBerry does what it can to stay in the game. There’s another argument that the company could have made that makes more sense, but it has its own problems. That is the argument that thieves will soon target voice and text as ways to gather information that can be sold. The problem is that this argument rests on something that could happen but isn’t happening yet. Budget-challenged IT leaders don’t have enough money to protect tech resources against today’s cyberattacks. Spending millions to protect resources not yet under attack might be strategically sound, but it doesn’t work tactically.
There’s a legitimate point behind BlackBerry’s security argument. Apple’s latest phones — the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus — have gotten a lot of publicity for enhanced security, courtesy of tokenization, biometric authentication, an isolated secure element chip and geolocation authentication. That’s not shabby at all. The problem is that all of that security is focused on Apple Pay — it doesn’t do much beyond protecting transactions using the phone.
Take the biometric authentication, the finger scan. Your authenticated fingerprint is necessary to complete an Apple Pay transaction. But while you can unlock your phone with that same fingerprint, that safeguard can be bypassed. iPhones default to a PIN if the fingerprint scan fails, and most users rely on the default setting of a four-digit PIN.
And BlackBerry CEO John Chen this month made the case to enterprise IT that BlackBerry’s security defenses are much deeper than that. “Our security doesn’t just come from one layer of security, like most of our competitors. We start with the silicon. It’s in the chip. The firmware that was written on it,” Chen said.
That is wonderful, sure, but for BlackBerry it is no longer enough. It can’t overcome what has become BlackBerry’s biggest shortcoming, its near invisibility in the massive app market. Apple and Google/Android have done a great job of making their dominance of the app market pay off for them even in the enterprise, tying app functionality and flexibility to opportunities for reaping better profits and regaining missed sales. For years, when companies have decided which platforms to launch their apps on, the choice has almost always come down to iOS, Android or both. Rarely has BlackBerry even been considered a viable app platform option.
What, then, can save BlackBerry?
One bright spot is the global market. In many parts of the world, BlackBerry was never eclipsed by Apple and the iPhone. That could change, though. If Alibaba makes good on its much-discussed deal with Apple, even parts of Asia that appear very BlackBerry-friendly might start to slip away.
There might be a glimmer of hope in an area of huge importance for enterprise IT: BYOD. BlackBerry has acquired a U.K. firm called Movirtu, which lets one smartphone host both a corporate and a personal phone number. Enterprises might latch on to an easy way to use SIM cards to keep personal and corporate data separate on a single device. Movirtu can achieve this trick on iOS and Android devices as well as BlackBerry devices. Nonetheless, this looks like a differentiator for BlackBerry. Enterprises are very interested in ways to make BYOD less of a headache, and neither Apple nor Google/Android is doing much of anything to help. BlackBerry is. That could reflect well on BlackBerry, reminding corporate IT decision-makers that it was always the leader in mobile security. And there’s always the chance that more than a few of those decision-makers will move back toward BlackBerry just because they find themselves in business with the company again, implementing the Movirtu device on iOS and Android phones.
(One interesting thing about this BYOD scenario is how it mirrors one of Apple’s oldest strategies — “mirror” being the appropriate metaphor, because it takes that strategy and reverses it. Apple always has tried to leverage its relative success among consumers to gain a foothold in the enterprise. Most notably, it attempted this by getting universities and other schools to use Macs, with the hope that the students who had become accustomed to Macs would insist on using them when they entered the corporate world. It never quite worked out that way, but no matter. Now we have BlackBerry, once the mobile king of the enterprise, trying with this dual-persona service to make a big push into the consumer market.)
Admittedly, it’s a bit of a long shot. And that is sad, because BlackBerry, the undisputed email device leader for years, is the latest example of the classic business nightmare. A company with huge market share and powerful profits can hardly ever bring itself to abandon its product and embrace something new until it’s too late. And this happens quickly because Wall Street is in thrall to the idiocy of putting quarterly revenue reports above all other considerations. CEOs who are focused on the big picture and invest for the future are routinely punished by Wall Street, while short-sighted execs who sacrifice the future to deliver great numbers right now are rewarded. BlackBerry is just the latest victim.
Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.