As BlackBerry continues to battle back in the super-competitive mobile marketplace after losing its enterprise sales edge to iPhones and Android smartphones since 2007, CEO John Chen is leaving no idea off the table. Now he’s taking app developers to task for not releasing their apps for BlackBerry users, which he says puts his company at a big disadvantage.
To solve that problem, Chen is proposing that companies such as BlackBerry should have app neutrality, which he says is sort of like net neutrality in that it would create an even playing field by mandating that apps be offered for all mobile operating systems instead of just for the most popular OSes.
Chen made his proposal in a Jan. 21 post on the BlackBerry Blog, in which he calls for governments to regulate this issue just like net neutrality rules will regulate the Internet.
“U.S. President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler have put net neutrality back on the front burner with their recently announced support for reclassifying both wireline and wireless broadband as Title II services,” wrote Chen in his post, which was adapted from a letter he sent to several congressional leaders on the topic.
While supporting the idea of net neutrality and equal access to the Internet for all users, Chen wrote that “BlackBerry believes policymakers should focus on more than just the carriers, who play only one role in the overall broadband internet ecosystem.” In addition, regulators must also look at content and app developers, where open access is just as important, wrote Chen. “Banning carriers from discriminating but allowing content and applications providers to continue doing so will solve nothing.”
With that in mind, BlackBerry, which is based in Canada, seeks such protections because they are needed as the company continues its turnaround after several years of declining sales and revenue as it lost ground to the surge of iPhones and Android phones in the enterprise and consumer markets, wrote Chen.
“Key to BlackBerry’s turnaround has been a strategy of application and content neutrality,” including the opening up of its proprietary BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service in 2013 to competitors and other devices, wrote Chen. “Tens of millions of iPhone and Android customers around the world have since downloaded BBM and are enjoying the service free of charge. Last year we introduced our secure BES12 mobile device management software, once again designed to manage not just BlackBerry phones but also available for enterprises and government agencies whose employees use iPhone and Android devices.”
Now, Chen wants similar accommodations from app developers so that they create BlackBerry versions of their apps for Chen’s users. “Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality,” he wrote. “Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users.”
This has “created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems,” which isn’t fair, wrote Chen. “These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.”
To fix this and make the situation more equitable, “neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory Internet,” wrote Chen. “All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.”
Analysts Weigh In
Two industry analysts who spoke with eWEEK said that while they can understand Chen’s frustrations, it’s ironic that he wants government action to be taken now. In BlackBerry’s heyday, when it dominated the enterprise mobile space in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chen never would have suggested that developers develop their apps for all platforms, said Dan Maycock, an analyst with Transform Digital.
BlackBerry’s Chen Thinks Net Neutrality Should Be Expanded to Apps
“They’re in a very different position now than about eight years ago,” said Maycock. “I don’t think he would be advocating for the level of openness now if they were in as dominant a position today as they were in the late 1990s. Theirs was the one platform that was the most closed-off platform back then.”
Now that BlackBerry is no longer on top of the market, “it’s a very different story,” said Maycock. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this comes side-by-side with the collapse of their business.”
Charles King, principal analyst of Pund-IT, said that Chen’s ideas for app parity are essentially too late, even though the company’s new products are some of the best it’s produced in years.
“You can’t force developers to create work in markets that are apparently shrinking,” said King. “Developers are like other good capitalists—they follow the money. BlackBerry is no longer where the money is nowadays.”
Worse for Chen, said King, is that by comparing the app situation to net neutrality, he is making a comparison that is a big mistake. “That seems to really irritate people,” King said. “In no way is that equal to assuring equal access to high-performance Internet access.”
If Chen really wants BlackBerry users to have equal access to the most popular apps, then he might want to consider an even more radical idea, said King. “If Chen looked around, there is a way around this problem that he sees and that’s to dump BlackBerry OS and adopt Android. That actually would provide a way forward that would be workable. This hope for a lifeline from the Canadian or other governments seems to me to be a non-starter.”
In December 2014, BlackBerry’s fiscal 2015 third-quarter earnings report showed revenue continued to fall in the quarter, down 13.43 percent to $793 million from the prior quarter. The good news for the period was that its losses fell 28.5 percent to $148 million.
The $793 million in revenue is a drop from the $916 million posted in the company’s second fiscal 2015 quarter, which were reported in September 2014. The $148 million loss is an improvement from the $207 million loss that was posted at that time. The company’s per-share loss was 28 cents, compared with a loss of 39 cents per share in the second quarter.
BlackBerry launched its latest new smartphone, the $449 BlackBerry Classic, in December 2014, just a few months after unveiling its $599 BlackBerry Passport smartphone for enterprise users last September.
As 2015 begins, BlackBerry appears to be hard at work as it seeks to rebuild its reputation and market presence after some difficult years. BlackBerry’s fall from dominating the enterprise smartphone market has been swift and stunning. The company spent much of 2012 and 2013 trying to shake off the image that it was finished, especially compared with its presence five years earlier when its devices were the “enterprise gold standard” for mobile business communications, according to earlier eWEEK reports. In early 2006, half of all smartphones sold were BlackBerry models. By 2009, though, its share of the global smartphone market was down to 20 percent.