Sunday, November 29, 2015

Blackberry, Nokia: Two Business Books

We are well aware of many colossal collapses in the business world, and they can occur in an accelerated way in the digital age - Netscape booms, then loses to IE and Firefox; Myspace is rapidly replaced by Facebook; Yahoo search loses to the Google monolith; Blockbuster caves in with the rise of web-based Netflix.   In the phone world, Motorola and Nokia dominated everything until they abruptly didn't.  Two new books profile the decline of Blackberry and Nokia.

In Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry (2015), Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff tell the story of a small hardscrabble Canadian tech company called RIM that rose to the top of the mobile world.  Blackberries were conceived in the digital stone age when we had (A) PalmPilots that you sync'd in the morning with your PC and there were (B) two-way pagers with very limited text capabilities.  

RIM recognized there could be a huge untapped market for providing full and seamless high security email services on mobile devices.   The early BlackBerries didn't have phones at all.  Management was appalled when iPhones were introduced in 2007: because there wasn't enough bandwidth at carriers for all that internet access (there wasn't), because people wouldn't type on glass, and because the battery was pathetic - 10 hours not 2 days.

BlackBerry avoided the internet like the plague for a while longer.  The company, despite its reputation and success, had always had a head-just-above-water approach to its global servers, and these collapsed a few times, damaging its reputation.  RIM then bungled several attempts at more modern smartphones and had delayed and sank R&D into misguided efforts like its Play tablet.  The "spectacular fall" ensured.  Some of RIM's most tightly held assumptions...that internet and corporate email access on iPhones would be difficult or impossible... proved completely wrong as the bring-your-own-device business world emerged a few years ago.

In The Decline and Fall of Nokia (2015), David J. Cord tells a similar story.  Nokia dominated the global phone market as a miracle Finnish company that could do no wrong - $50B in sales and $7B profit in 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced.  It provided a massive range of devices, for the low, mid and high markets, all rapidly remodeled, and customized to each carrier.  The endless varities of phones ran on a diversely versioned operating system called Symbian.  Android grew rapidly with a completely different model - a one fits all open access operating system.

As Cord points out, iPhone had one phone, one operating system, and was riding on top of Apple's booming success with iPods and iTunes.   Nokia declined rapidly, entering a death spiral by 2011/2012.  Just like RIM, trying to follow the iPhone, it began producing more sophisticated devices that didn't work well.  Attempts to break off Symbian with a proprietary new system, with MS-Windows, and with a Linux-like system all stumbled in turn.  

Lack of a common software platform for Nokia's phones made an iOS like "app and entertainment" ecosystem impossible, and the option of iPads using the same ecosystem made iOS even more attractive, as iPads and iPhones boomed together.

Eventually Nokia was (essentially) acquired by Microsoft, a transaction that soon generated a $7B writeoff.   After a share price peak of $230 around the time the iPhone was introduced, RIM fel to $50 in 2010/2011 and is at $8 today, where it has sat since 2012.

The stories, while different, reproduce at least three of the seven "Billion Dollar Lessons" cataloged by Carroll and Mui in their 2007 book  Billion Dollar Lessons: "Staying the Course [Threat? What Threat?]," "Fumbling Technology: Riding the Wrong Technology," and "Consolidation Blues: Doubling Down on a Bad Hand."

Lessons for healthcare and digital health?  I'm going to think about that....

Decline and Fall of Nokia is paper book only.  Losing the Signal is available in book, eBook and Audible versions, as is Billion Dollar Lessons.

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