Can Alicia Keys Save BlackBerry?

BlackBerry launched a new operating system and phone line intended to capture the consumer market, but will these new products impact government?

by / February 4, 2013

A new BlackBerry phone has hit the marketplace. Just as Research In Motion (which officially changed its name to BlackBerry on launch day) appeared to be losing its grip on even its most faithful customers, the company released a new phone in an attempt to regain a market dominated by Apple and Samsung. The latest operating system, BlackBerry 10, and two new models, the Z10 and Q10, launched on Jan. 30. The company said goodbye to a physical keyboard and integrated a sleek new style and user experience that more closely resembles its competitors.

For years, BlackBerry devices were a mainstay in government for their superior security standards and dependability, but the device's greatest strength indirectly drove customers away, according to Paul Lucier, vice president of government solutions for BlackBerry.

“They locked [BlackBerry devices] down so much that people were really only using them for email, very basic features. As the BYOD trend started to take off across enterprise, government included, it posed a big challenge," Lucier explained. "People were comparing a brand-new device on the market that had all the bells and whistles with a locked-down BlackBerry.” And it wasn't just state and local government employees who wanted to use their new smartphones -- even the federal government started shifting away from BlackBerry.

Despite reports in early 2012 that the U.S. government would not abandon BlackBerry, some agencies have started to turn to competing devices. In October, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement switched from BlackBerry to Apple devices as part of a $2.1 million contract that affected more than 17,000 government workers.

BlackBerry devices fared well in the marketplace several years ago, edging out iPhone, Windows Mobile devices and Palm OS devices. But a recent Gartner report showed that BlackBerry represented just 5.3 percent of global market share in the third quarter of 2012, less than half of the 11 percent it claimed in the same period of 2011 .

As soon as BlackBerry became comfortable in the market, Google appeared and began dominating all competitors, Lucier said. Not surprisingly, he predicts a market correction because of new BlackBerry features aimed at the consumer market. “This phone does not compromise on security and it does not compromise on consumer user experience,” he said.

The feature that has gained the most attention from government customers, Lucier said, is called Balance, which allows users to keep personal and business data separate and secure. Users can easily switch between personal and business apps, email contacts or files.

Lucier also talked up the BlackBerry Hub as a unique feature not seen in other devices. User interactions conducted via text, social media and email are integrated into the hub, so users can finish tasks more quickly. For instance, if a user receives a LinkedIn invitation, he can field that request directly from the hub, rather than needing to visit LinkedIn. “This is the greatest user experience change that we've made on the device that people are going to recognize as faster and more efficient,” he said.

The new phones are not available directly after the launch, so Technology Analyst Rob Enderle told Government Technology that whether the product will be successful remains to be seen. “They brought a good car to the race -- we don't know if they can race yet,” he said. “And we won't know that until advertising creative hits and we can see how they're building demand. For this phase of a launch, they're doing very well.”

But Enderle warned that a strong launch doesn't always translate into success for a phone, recalling the launch of the Palm Pre in 2009. “I thought the device was incredibly strong for its time, and then Palm fell all over itself with marketing,” he said. “Palm completely destroyed the ramp for the phone with horrid marketing.”

At this early stage, BlackBerry appears to be doing at least a little better than Palm, however. Pop star Alicia Keys, who sang the national anthem at the 2013 Super Bowl, was named global creative director of BlackBerry in an attempt to help kickstart a broad-based marketing effort. However, using celebrities to endorse products sometimes produces lackluster results, Enderle said, citing musician's contract with Intel, a deal Enderle said didn't help the manufacturer in any quantifiable way.

“But Alicia Keys went into a great degree of detail that she really intends to make a difference here; she's met with the engineers and indicated that if she's not making a difference at RIM, she's going to quit,” Enderle said. “So I think there's some meat there. [She's] a friendly face for the phones, and if they do it right, they could do something along the lines of what Apple did with Jobs, but perhaps better. I always thought an entertainer would do better at this. If I got a choice between hanging out with Steve Jobs and Alicia Keys, you know where I'm going.”

Photo of singer Alicia Keys by: Featureflash /

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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