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The imminent demise of killers

Before proclaiming the death of a company or product it’s important to understand what makes it live. I’ll illustrate with a personal experience.

I was once asked to comment on a product designed to be a “Blackberry killer”. Much like the latest Droid Pro, the product looked like a Blackberry. It had a monoblock keyboard and a nearly square screen. It was, in other words, a product designed for thumb typing emails.

The backstory is that, like many phones, the requirements came from operators. At the time, RIM was growing extremely quickly and was causing some consternation at operators over an upstart’s increasing reach into the relationship with end-users (sounds familiar?)

The rigidly predictable response was to call all phone vendors and task them with developing Blackberry alternatives (aka killers). Of course, each vendor was called independently so they all got excited about having this opportunity to be assassins.

So when I looked at the product my employer was building as a “killer” I asked: “Well, what makes Blackberry live?” This was not just rhetorical. I felt it was critical to the success of the product. Unfortunately it was not a question on anybody else’s list. My cursory review of RIM’s business would show that the product Blackberry was popular because it enabled a service, not because of the design of the device.

RIM was like a barkeeper who enabled socializing on his premises by selling beer. The product he sold was not really beer but meeting services. A brewer looking enviously at the high margin beer being sold there might try to compete by launching “Pub-style beer” but the product won’t help people socialize any more if they drank it at home. Bar patrons were paying the high price of bar beer because it had an implicit rent attached for using the meeting site.

So no matter how much a brewer tried, unless they got into the business of managing taverns, they won’t ever put the barkeeper out of business.

But the rush to copy the design was in full force. Not only Nokia (E 61), but HTC (T-Mobile Dash), Motorola (Q), Samsung (Blackjack) and even Sony Ericsson (M600) rushed similar products out. And they all reached the market at about the same time. (Evidence that not only were they all asked to make products by operators at the same time, but that their product development cycles were roughly the same.)

The deluge of keyboard monoblock Blackberry killers led to lots of comments predicting the imminent demise of RIM by way of powerful entrenched incumbent responses.

RIM’s market share actually grew after these launches.

This is because none of the products addressed the real question of what makes Blackberry live and thrive. They were just pub-style beer, not thinly disguised meeting places.

So next time you hear about the imminent demise of an upstart due to the reaction of suddenly awakened incumbents, ask whether the reaction is to the product or to the way the product makes money.