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'History repeats itself': BlackBerry's embattled CEO argues that Apple's iPhone is standing still

'History repeats itself': BlackBerry's embattled CEO argues that Apple's iPhone is standing still


Thorsten Heins stops ignoring the world's leading smartphone to note that its breakthrough user interface is 'now five years old'

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RIM CEO Thorsten Heins
RIM CEO Thorsten Heins

BlackBerry's executives usually prefer not to mention the company's biggest competitors, especially Apple and its iPhone. (After all, for the last few years, BlackBerry's sales numbers haven't exactly been flattered by head-to-head comparisons.) That alone would make a statement by BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins to the Australian Financial Review where he calls out both Apple and its flagship smartphone by name noteworthy. But considering his company sells fewer phones in a year than Apple sells in a quarter, Heins' words about BlackBerry's market position relative to Apple and both companies' record of innovation are surprisingly sharp.

"You can never stand still. It is true for us as well."

“Apple did a fantastic job in bringing touch devices to market," Heins said. "They did a fantastic job with the user interface, they are a design icon. There is a reason why they were so successful, and we actually have to admit this and respect that." But Heins thinks Apple has a problem: "The user interface on the iPhone, with all due respect for what this invention was all about is now five years old."

Actually, the original iPhone interface is now six years old. But Heins' point isn't about the past, but the future. BlackBerry, formerly Research In Motion, knows a thing or two about being both the market leader in smartphones and being stuck in time. "History repeats itself again I guess," Heins said. "The rate of innovation is so high in our industry that if you don't innovate at that speed you can be replaced pretty quickly," followed by the observation that the iPhone's UI was five years old.

"The point is that you can never stand still," Heins added, "It is true for us as well. Launching BB10 just put us on the starting grid of the wider mobile computing grand prix, and now we need to win it."

"The rate of innovation is so high in our industry that if you don’t innovate at that speed you can be replaced pretty quickly."

RIM's BlackBerry was the iPhone before the iPhone in the 2000s. Although Nokia's Symbian platform beat it for global market share, the BlackBerry was the best-regarded, highest-prestige smartphone, with tightly coupled hardware and software and millions of devoted users who loved its embrace of the internet and keyboard-driven UI. In 2007, after the iPhone was introduced, RIM sold almost 12 million Blackberries and its stock price hit an all-time high of more than $230 per share. (Apple sold 3.3 million iPhones in a truncated 2007, and its stock peaked in December at a little under $200 per share.)

As Apple and then Android opened up and redefined the smartphone market, BlackBerry continued to thrive. In 2011, RIM sold a record 51.54 million smartphones. But Apple finally passed BlackBerry by that year, selling more than 89 million iPhones. Android's platform beat them all and captured over half the smartphone market. The next year, a stagnant RIM fell off a cliff, selling just 34 million Blackberries, while Apple sold more than 43 million iPhones in the fourth quarter alone. RIM named Heins its new CEO. Apple, Android, and the iPhone's touchscreen-focused user interface had won.

Like Apple, BlackBerry was once the future of mobile computing

Now, Heins and BlackBerry are trying to launch their revamped BB10 mobile OS and Q10 and Z10 smartphones, with the Z10 already shipping in Europe and Canada and worldwide over the next two weeks. Clumsy promo videos and Super Bowl commercials won't be enough to make it happen. Heins badly needs the new devices to be a hit with customers and developers. He has to attack. He has to try to convince the world that history is repeating itself because BlackBerry is improbably pushing ahead of Apple — not that BlackBerry, once again, is letting the real innovations in mobile hardware and software pass it by.

Heins and the rest of BlackBerry can no longer pretend the iPhone doesn't exist. (By contrast, see this BBC interview, where RIM's Stephen Bates refuses to directly answer any questions about the iPhone.) They can only hope its days in the sun are over. After all, there once was a time before touchscreens, when BlackBerry was the future.