By the Blouin News Technology staff

BlackBerry and the fantasy of business tech

by in Enterprise Tech, Personal Tech.

A general view of atmosphere at the Blackberry Lounge. Getty/ Neilson Barnard

A general view of atmosphere at the Blackberry Lounge. Getty/ Neilson Barnard

It’s a mistake to call the fall of BlackBerry a tale of two smartphones.

That’s how reports about the fallen Canadian angel are shaping up. They say BlackBerry, which just reported a $1 billion quarterly loss and is in the process of being sold, was put down by Apple’s iPhone. In a narrow sense, that’s true.

But the real story is more subtle — and more important. BlackBerry’s fall is a reminder that the “enterprise sale” is overvalued. This is the phrase business people often use to talk about products that target very big businesses. In 2007, when the iPhone debuted, BlackBerry said the enterprise sale was special — and secure.

That turned out to be wrong. But BlackBerry didn’t admit its error until 2010, when it bought QNX in order to create a new consumer-friendly operating system. Late to market, the result, BlackBerry OS, did not fare well.

The tale is a reminder that the technology business is full of arbitrary distinctions. The notion of an enterprise sale — which means big businesses require lots of time and attention — is one of the most arbitrary. While it can help a company build a sales plan, it can also convince it that “good enough” products are actually good enough to sell.

Why? Those who do enterprise sales want to believe the process makes challengers unlikely.

They can’t count on that. Software is software, no matter who uses it. It all runs on the same chips and relies on similar code. In other words, the enterprise sale is an arbitrary distinction.

At some point, a better product will find a way around it.

That’s the lesson Apple taught BlackBerry and the broader technology market these last few years. The iPhone was not designed as a BlackBerry challenger. Rather, it was targeted at putting an end to the painful, good-enough world that had grabbed hold of wide swarths of the technology business by 2007.

At the time, iPhone-like smartphones were relegated to concept sketches from the likes of AT&T, Verizon and their compatriots. These carriers liked clunky phones that featured their own “walled gardens” of visual content. The idea was to prevent their services from being seen as dumb pipes — conduits to smarter, cooler things online.

The strategy seemed to work because there was no alternative. There was no easy way for most people to surf the web with a phone. That’s not to say the kids didn’t — many used pokey little web browsers to “side-load” music.

But the whole thing was wonky, and a long way from being mass market, primetime material.

People were ready for something that wasn’t just good enough. That was the iPhone. It was tomorrow’s technology, today. From the start, it made the future clear. Google copied its software. Microsoft did too, as did Intel with its now-defunct MeeGo mobile operating system, then Tizen, Mozilla with Firefox OS, Jolla with Sailfish OS, and so on and so forth. And somewhere in there, tablets — or really iPads — showed up in droves too.

All of them have been carried inside big enterprises by employees who use them while working.

The result: The “consumerization of IT.” Employees at big companies are ignoring the software that’s been bought for them in favor of using newer, cooler software programs that they access online via their own mobile devices. In other words, the enterprise software sale is suddenly struggling against a sea of pipsqueak software suppliers.

There will be a constant ebb and flow between them. But the overall story is a reminder that the lingo of the technology business is just that — informal, temporary, and, often, misleading.

(Disclosure: James Abels runs a start-up working on new ways to design and deliver media.)