5 changes BlackBerry must make to have a ghost of a chance

The company that once defined the smartphone needs to look elsewhere for its future

Unless you've been living in a cave, you have to know that BlackBerry has lost not only its once-pioneering position in mobile but also any relevance to the mobile market of today. Pundits like me have chronicled BlackBerry's suicidal refusal to see and embrace a changing world, wished it well when it finally seemed to get a belated clue, then grew frustrated again as this iconic company again appeared to retreat into old, self-destructive patterns.

What's particularly sad is that really good, perceptive talent at BlackBerry and a real need in the market for some of its innovations still exist. I recently discussed BlackBerry's dilemma with Bob Egan, principal analyst at Sepharim Group, who knows BlackBerry better than anyone. Egan still uses a BlackBerry (the Q10) as his primary device, alongside an Android smartphone and an iPad Mini. Our conversation spurred to me to think what BlackBerry should do to matter again in mobile, in hopes that the company, again under new management, might find a role for itself again.

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I have five suggestions for BlackBerry to matter again in mobile. (Blame me for anything you disagree with, not Egan! These are my ideas, not necessarily his.)

1. Stop focusing on smartphones

The cold, hard truth is that BlackBerry is out of the smartphone business, and the company needs to accept the fact.

New CEO John Chen has shifted some of the manufacturing and design to a contract manufacturer, but that's not what I mean. Contract manufacturers are used by most tech companies -- Apple has never built the iPhone, for example -- so they can focus on what they do best (design, in Apple's case) and exploit what others do best. That's how business is done today, not a differentiating strategy.

BlackBerry, which has long built its own device, needs to stop trying to base its business on the smartphone regardless of who makes them. There are not enough people stuck in the past to sustain a BlackBerry smartphone business, yet that seems to be the company's strategy. The BlackBerry smartphone market is too small to keep the company alive.

Yes, there are niche markets that today must have BlackBerrys, such as defense agencies, spy agencies, and governments, for certain segments (not even most) of their users. BlackBerry is their familiar, entrenched good standard, though it faces new competition for supersecure Android smartphones from General Dynamics and Boeing. These devices will become the equivalent of the Defense Department's reputed $10,000 nuclear-war-surviving toilet seat: pricey devices for which there is no mass-market alternatives. So be it.

But for a sustainable business outside this niche, BlackBerry needs to look at its other technologies.

2. License the keyboard

BlackBerry enthusiasts bemoan the victory of the touchscreen and claim that if only there was a modern BlackBerry with an old-fashioned physical keyboard, iPhones and Android smartphones would disappear.

That's foolish thinking. A few years ago, there were several Android smartphones with good physical keyboards. Few people bought them. Few people bought last year's BlackBerry Q10, either -- the device these old-timers said they wanted.

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