The news yesterday that Facebook would be dropping support for BlackBerry’s BB10 should not come as a surprise. There is a cost to Facebook supporting the API’s required by a third-party platform. If that platform isn’t keeping up its end of the implicit bargain by providing a notable number of users, then Facebook will remember it’s not a charity. Facebook’s lack of support is a wooden stake through the heart of BB10, and this decision effectively kills BlackBerry’s proprietary platform.
When BlackBerry started, the operating system was everything. The bundled apps would do most of the heavy lifting, the email client would pick up POP3 or IMAP details, and the web browser would let you pick up information from ‘the internet’. A well-coded OS paired with solid hardware was enough to not only get you to the table, but to create a successful business.
BlackBerry managed this and rode the first wave of smartphone success. I’d place Palm in the same boat. Although it started out with a PDA, grafting a cellular data connection gave the Palm Treo range the mix of PIM apps, messaging, and basic web browsing. Over in Europe Nokia managed a similar approach, although with Symbian OS shared between a number of manufacturing partners (including Psion, Panasonic, Motorola, LG, and Samsung) there was a lot more red tape and bureaucracy in the Symbian platform. These products were typically strong hardware, backed up with an OS that provided all the apps required.
And then social media arrived.
I know that the done thing is to say that Apple revolutionised the mobile space with the release of the iPhone, opening up the world of smartphones to touch screens, application, and media, but all of these were present in devices from BlackBerry, Palm, Nokia, and others. Apple’s trick was twofold. The first was that it presented all of these in a single device – the iPhone was the equivalent of a Greatest Hits album of smartphone OS tricks with some really nice cover art. The second was that iOS, starting from a relatively clean sheet of paper could place far more focus on applications that would connect to internet based services and pull down information that way.
Of course iOS didn’t do that straight away – the first iPhone’s third-party apps were little more than HTML-based web apps with a shortcut icon in the launcher. Apple’s success was down to quickly pivoting into adopting apps than the older incumbents could manage. The new-found love of mobile apps coupled with the rise of ‘Web 2.0′ services created a perfect tidal wave that allowed Apple (and the nascent Android OS) to surf ahead of the competition.
That wave is still there. Pick up the average smartphone today and you’ll see a sea of applications, providing every service possible. You have Uber and the sharing economy all using apps; you have news and content apps delivering every topic under the sun; you have sports apps streaming live coverage; and you have the social networks of Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram and others all to be found through apps.
Each of those apps needs constant investment and support from each service, and each service needs to see a return in the form of user adoption and usage. As long as the users are there, the apps will be there. As long as the apps are there, the users will be there. And now you have a ‘circle of smartphones’ for the second decade of the 21st century. And those smartphones are likely iOS or Android.
BlackBerry never had the volume of users to start this virtuous cycle through its own OS (and is now having to use Android to even be considered as relevant). Microsoft fought a good fight with Windows Phone, and invested heavily to have Facebook and Twitter present on its mobile platform, but it couldn’t support every new start-up or service.
The modern smartphone is a connected smartphone, but the connect that matters is the millions of potential users that a smartphone can connect to a business. Even Facebook, arguably the service with the most users, couldn’t find enough of these connections to make BB10 a worthwhile proposition.
And that lack of connections, as we saw with Windows Phone, as we saw with Symbian and as we saw with Palm, is what kills an operating system.