Last week, CTIA - The Wireless Association held its annual MobileCon event in San Jose, Calif. I spent the week hustling back and forth between keynotes, panels, interviews and mobility sessions. I also spoke to a number of interesting sources from companies such as Dell and Good Technology.
During these interviews, I listened to breakdowns of each company's latest announcements; asked related questions to fill in any blanks, and then asked some general mobile questions about issues of interest to me. At the end of each interview, I asked for the sources' takes on BlackBerry.
Not everyone I spoke with felt comfortable or qualified to speak on the subject, but a few had some very interesting information and insights to share.
Dell On (and Off) BlackBerry
I sat down with Tom Kendra, VP and general manager, systems management software, Dell, and Neil Foster, the company's software group executive director, to talk mobile security, BYOD and BlackBerry. Kendra said he and Foster are "responsible for Dell's BYOD strategy."
As soon as I asked about Dell's take on BlackBerry, Kendra pulled out a BlackBerry Bold 9780, and asked with a grin, "What, this thing?"
The Bold 9780 is Kendra's corporate-issued device, which he received "last year." And the fact that he is using it answers the question of whether or not Dell is still supporting BlackBerrys.
But when I asked about BlackBerry's future both within and outside of Dell, he wasn't optimistic. In fact, Dell is no longer issuing BlackBerrys to its employees; instead it currently offers a choice of corporate devices: The Samsung Galaxy S3 or a Nokia Lumia Windows Phone. (Foster didn't remember the specific model of Lumia device.)
"We don't take official positions on what might be their ultimate disposition or what will happen," Kendra said. "All I can tell you is that from a corporate IT perspective, our corporate issue device used to be this [Kendra holds up his BlackBerry), and now it's a couple of other things."
Dell's Foster said that device loyalty rarely comes into play when large corporations make device purchases.
"Dell's a big company [with approximately 110,000 employees], and most big company customers that we have all follow the same thing. They want to negotiate good deals with their telcos, their wireless providers or carriers," Foster said. "So whatever deals that are in place [for phones], there's no real religion around it. It's usually more set up around, 'What's the subsidy plan? How can I get devices cheap?'"
Many BlackBerry models are sure to get deep discounts in the coming months, which could translate into more corporate BlackBerrys. But actions speak louder than words, and Dell has moved away from BlackBerry.
Neither Kendra nor Foster commented directly on the fate of the company, but I got a clear feeling from our conversation that they, and Dell, are not betting on BlackBerry to make any sort of comeback.
Good Technology CEO Sees (Mostly) Bad News for BlackBerry
Shortly after Good Technology CEO Christy Wyatt addressed the MobileCon audience during her day two keynote address, we sat down for a chat to discuss Good's take on the current evolution of mobility, BYOD, security and, finally, BlackBerry.
As our conversation turned to BlackBerry, Wyatt quickly noted that she is Canadian and therefore keeps a close eye on the company. Unlike Dell's Kendra, she does not currently use a BlackBerry device. Sitting in front of Wyatt during out chat was an iPhone 5. When I asked if she had a preference in mobile platforms, she laughed and refused to answer. But when we briefly discussed biometrics and Apple's new Touch ID fingerprint scanner, Wyatt, a self-proclaimed "geek" and gadget lover, noted that she already ordered a gold iPhone 5S and is just waiting for the backordered device to arrive. Wyatt uses just one device for work and personal purposes, the iPhone, but during our interview she also had a Moto X Android device, which she said she uses for product testing.
Wyatt didn't share predictions on BlackBerry's fate, but she talked about its mobile strategy.
"I think the business of providing an enterprise focused device, I would never say it's 'done,' because enterprise has a long tail, things stick around for a long time," Wyatt said. "I think buying an enterprise device, as in a device designed for enterprise with that being its sole purpose, that's a mobility strategy we see sharply falling off."
BlackBerry seems to see a similar fall off. In the past couple years, the company moved away from an enterprise-focus in its product marketing toward a focus on productivity, and more recently, "prosumers."
The Good CEO also talked about its customers' perception of BlackBerry today.
"What we're seeing right now from our customer base is folks really taking the Gartner comments to heart," Wyatt said. (Read specifics on those Gartner comments here.) "Customers who were previously signaling a 12- to 18-month transition [are] starting to signal for shorter roadmaps, shorter plans."
Wyatt also thinks BlackBerry may see a slight uptick in device purchases in the coming months, an opinion that's in line with the comments from Dell's Foster.
"I saw a release this morning, [BlackBerry] announced some customer just bought a whole lot of devices," Wyatt said. "And I think you're going to probably see a little bit of that as well." (Wyatt was referring to KPMG's recent purchase of 3,500 BlackBerry 10 smartphones.)
Wyatt, who previously headed up Motorola's enterprise unit, remembered corporate customers wanting to purchase loads of Motorola Atrix devices when they were nearing end-of-life status, "so that when they stop working, they still have more to go to."
Wyatt also noted that from the perspective of price, now's probably not a bad time to buy BlackBerry devices.
BlackBerry Hard to Find at MobileCon 2013
Last October, at MobileCon 2012, I interviewed BlackBerry's CIO. (She has since moved on.) The company had a small but notable presence at the show. This year, I was not even contacted by BlackBerry for briefings or a meeting. (That could have had something to do with a post I published recently.) I did not see any sort of BlackBerry stand or kiosk on the show floor, either, though I admittedly didn't spend much time on the floor this year.
Based on a number of conversations I had, including but not limited to the interviews spotlighted above, the general outlook among IT representatives on BlackBerry is grim.
I spoke with one former BlackBerry engineer who is now a product manager with a mobile security company. He had nothing good whatsoever to say about the future of BlackBerry, though he did say he valued the people he worked with at the time. I decided not include any of his specific impressions or opinions, since I sensed more than a little resentment toward the company, but he did seem to intimately know about the challenges BlackBerry currently faces and was not at all optimistic about a turnaround.
It's also worth noting that, while many sources badmouthed BlackBerry, quite a few of them also carried BlackBerry devices. I was honestly a bit surprised to see as many BlackBerrys as I did.
It was telling, though, that the majority of BlackBerry devices I saw were older, pre-BlackBerry-10 handsets. My BlackBerry Q10 was, in fact, the only BlackBerry 10 device I saw during the week. This suggests that, though BlackBerry still has a foothold in the enterprise, and a very large install base, the strength of that foothold could be in serious jeopardy if corporations aren't upgrading to BlackBerry 10 and BES 10.