In 1897, Mark Twain, out of town on a speaking tour trying to raise money to pay off his hefty debts, was able to respond to a rumor that he had recently died with the witty reply “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Twain was not dead. He was in London.
Weirdly, even with the improved, instantaneous communication that the Internet affords us in 2016, compared to Twain’s time when being out of the country seemed the same as being dead, rumors are both easier to start and then more difficult to refute after they gain a little traction.
Speaking at the Empire Club in Toronto yesterday, BlackBerry CEO John Chen seemed surprised to have to respond to rumors that BlackBerry was on the cusp of shutting down its handset division, based on a single dubious source, in order to focus on aspects of the company that are more profitable.
As with the spread of 9/11 conspiracy theories or anti-vaccination mythology, the Internet can also be a dumpster fire for corporate disinformation campaigns or groundless spin.
In a pivot from BlackBerry’s more recent attempts at fear-based marketing, Chen yesterday appeared to be playing the patriotism card, sort of a Canadian version of the old “what’s good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa” mantra.
“What I think Canadians ought to think about is, if you really think technology and knowledge is the next evolution of the economy, having a healthy BlackBerry is actually paramount in importance not only to Waterloo and other innovation centres, but also for the Canadian mindset,” said Chen.
Is what’s good for BlackBerry also good for Canada? Not exactly. But it’s certainly better for our long-term health than oil & gas.
Unlike Nortel, which at one time accounted for one-third of the value of the entire Toronto Stock Exchange, BlackBerry doesn’t carry nearly so much weight or significance as either that failed company or the beleaguered oil sands in the west.
But attaching our sense of national pride to a comeback kid technology company like BlackBerry would certainly be a welcome psychological turnaround from our decades-long economic identification with resources, and from our Canadian sense of fatalism that the country isn’t capable of successfully growing an IBM-sized global player.
Chen told the crowd at the Empire Club yesterday that he is two-thirds of the way through his turn-around plan for reversing BlackBerry’s fortunes.
The recent “BlackBerry is about to stop making phones” rumor appears to be based on Chen’s own assertion that if the handset division didn’t become profitable on its own terms “this year”, then he would shut it down and concentrate on BlackBerry’s other divisions, like BlackBerry Technology Solutions, which functions as an umbrella for QNX Software Systems, Certicom, Paratek, the BlackBerry Internet of Things (IoT) Platform, its Intellectual Property and Patent Licensing (IPPL) division, and the Radar asset tracking system.
But BlackBerry’s fiscal year ends March 31, 2017, so Chen still has plenty of time to unveil the third of three phones the company has waiting in the wings, with the DTEK 60 set to be unveiled as Phone #2 very soon.
BlackBerry submitted a filing to the Federal Communications Commission on September 22 for a device that appears to be the DTEK 60.
After the eventual unveiling of the third phone “this year”, or before the end of the fiscal year on March 31, Chen will deliver a verdict on whether the company will keep making BlackBerry branded phones.
Whether BlackBerry keeps making phones or not, however, the company is very well positioned to grow through the successes of its recent partnerships with the Pentagon, or its software distribution agreement with HCL in India, its Radar asset tracking system, and the use of its QNX Software by several large automakers.
In any case, BlackBerry isn’t really making phones anymore. The BlackBerry operating system is dead, and the phones now use Android, and the company doesn’t make its own hardware anymore. It basically just designs BlackBerry branded phones now.
A few weeks ago at a conference, I spoke to a Finnish urban planning academic, and I mentioned the word Nokia to him. You could see a sheepish look of regret steal across his face, as simultaneous feelings of pride and shame filled his memory. The once dominant phone maker, the pride of Finland, remains the country’s most spectacular failure.
This could be our fate, too, suggests Chen. Do we want to prevent the name BlackBerry from becoming both a source of pride and shame, like Nokia for Finland, or our other homegrown disaster stories like the Avro Arrow or Nortel?