Blackberry and Nokia: Twilight of the cellphone idols

Nothing dates quite like fashion, and nowhere is this truer than the technology sector – as Blackberry-maker RIM and Nokia are finding to their cost. In 10 years’ time, it’s conceivable that Blackberry will be no more than an extension in someone else’s brand repertoire, and Nokia – still, if only just, the market-leading brand in handset manufacturing – will have no more resonance than Ericsson does today. They are the brand equivalents of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Salience in the consumer technology sector is all about keeping abreast of the latest trends. And it is clear that Nokia and RIM have not. Nokia has failed to conquer the smartphone market, while RIM has failed to continue dominating it. Both companies are now beset by lengthy delays in product launches, increasing investor pessimism and, that natural corollary, plunging share prices.

At a technical level, both these companies seemed singularly blind to the two-pronged threat from the iPhone and Android operating system until it was right on top of them. Nokia has belatedly discovered, under its new chief executive Stephen Elop, that its smartphone operating system is not up to snuff and is having to broker a last-minute and doubtful marriage with Microsoft’s superior version. RIM, on the other hand, had grown complacent about its apparently unassailable position in the elite corporate sector, with the result that it failed to adequately prepare for the advent of the touchscreen phone and the 10in tablet.

A case of sclerotic corporate cultures fatally mesmerized by their legacy of previous success? Only up to a point. Nokia and RIM, looked at more strategically, are victims of haphazard technological convergence. Who, 10 years ago, could have seen that mobile communications would come to be dominated by a formerly ailing computer manufacturer and an ingredient brand dreamed up by the world’s largest search engine? And who, even once the trend had become established 3 years ago, would have had the corporate courage, or foolhardiness, to bet all their assets and legacy on it being the inexorable path of the future?

It’s a sad truism that companies spend billions of dollars every year on insight and trend-spotting. But usually lack the judgement or willpower to make proper use of it.

UPDATE 4/7/11: “RIM is the Wang of mobile phones.” That was how Charles Dunstone (CEO of Carphone Warehouse Group) referred to the Canadian Blackberry-maker at last week’s Google ThinkMobile conference. Wang was a classy corporate-oriented computer company that specialised in just one thing, word processing. But it was blown away by Microsoft’s Office. Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and eventually disappeared into Netherlands-based Getronics in 1999, never to be seen again. I wish I had thought of that parallel first, Charles…

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