BlackBerry Sealed Its Sad Fate With A Focus On A Single Killer App, And Other Tech Giants Risk Doing The Same

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BlackBerry’s original sin, its single strategic mistake, was to stake its entire future on one killer smartphone app: email.

When people talk about a “killer app,” they mean it in the sense of a tool that will drive consumer adoption of a specific product or category.

The problem is that the killer app paradigm actually stifles innovation in the long-run, and tends to straight-jacket companies that stay too dependent on the so-called killer app they first rode to success.

The killer app ends up killing them.

At the height of RIM’s power, when BlackBerry users joked that they were addicted to their devices, and called them “crackberries,” what they were actually saying is that they were addicted to email, and that BlackBerry phones allowed them to do email and instant messaging wherever they were.

On a weekend fishing trip in the 2000s I remember watching a seasick investment banker desperately typing emails on his BlackBerry, pausing only to vomit off the side of the boat.

That was the power of email on a BlackBerry. Email made the Ontario-based company a tech superpower. Email determined most of what made BlackBerry devices distinctive: the QWERTY keyboard. The proprietary email and IM networks. The focus on corporate users.

CumulativeAppDLsByStoreBIIBlackBerry World app store never took off

But thanks to the killer app mentality, email-fixated BlackBerry was late to every single other smartphone innovation that followed: touch screens, advanced cameras, and crucially — app stores full of games, weather apps, and fun software that solved many of life’s little problems.

The pre-loaded Brickbreaker game didn’t cut it.

By mid-2011, consumers had downloaded many billions of apps using Android and iPhone devices. The BlackBerry World app store was a backwater. (See chart, right.)

By 2010, tech analysts were asking what BlackBerry’s next killer app would be. It never came.

The “killer app” paradigm that stifled BlackBerry is very dangerous. Once you start looking for it, it crops up everywhere.

Foursquare leaned too heavily on check ins early on, when it could have been faster to grow other location-based features like local reviews, which competitors like Yelp championed.

Microsoft arguably missed the rise of the Internet and mobile because of its focus on a set of killer apps in the realm of productivity, the Office suite.

There’s a lot of talk, echoed by the latest cover of Forbes magazine, about real-time comments on TV programs as Twitter’s killer app. But if Twitter really stayed focused on TV-related tweets, it wouldn’t amount to more than a niche social media network.

Facebook didn’t stay focused on status updates. It sprawled into instant messaging, photo- and video-sharing, and social games.

The tablet market right now is also being straight-jacketed by a killer app mentality.

The stereotype around tablets is that they are a “lean back” device, useful only for media consumption, games, and relaxed shopping.

But a cohort of tablet power users are beginning to use tablets for word processing, presentation-creation, and number-crunching. Apple has been smart in recognising this trend and so has Microsoft, despite the early failure of its Surface tablets, which with the snap-in keyboard probably went too far in highlighting productivity.

Other tablet manufacturers (e.g. Amazon, Google, Samsung), in contrast, have been very focused on creating media- and video-friendly tablets, and may miss out on the likely next wave of tablet adoption among large companies. Witness Google Chairman Eric Schmidt saying he’s surprised by how fast enterprises have taken to tablets as a business device.

With the right software, tablet-toting work forces will eventually be just as productive on touchscreens as they or netbooks or laptops.

Tablets aren’t just for Fruit Ninja and Netflix.

Today, BlackBerry announced that its deal to go private collapsed and that its CEO is out. The company’s tailspin serves as a cautionary tale to the rest of the tech industry. Today’s killer app is tomorrow’s commoditized feature. It takes more than a killer app to win.

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