A lot has been written about Nokia and BlackBerry, especially in the last few weeks. How can two great phone companies not see the writing on the wall and innovate? Was the lack of innovation alone the main reason for the collapse of BlackBerry and Nokia? Couldn’t they have done something that would have brought them back to the glorious old days?

Compared to BlackBerry, Nokia had more reasons to survive. It had the widest range of phones - from the most basic to the top end. It had the advantage of first-time users of basic phones swearing by it. One of the reasons for the success of the basic Nokia phones was that they were so easy and intuitive to use. You didn’t need a manual at all.

Those who had used Nokia’s basic phones and upgraded to higher-end phones stuck to Nokia, as they were familiar with the technology. The higher-end phones, too, had a huge following – Nokia devices had the best cameras and the features.

What Nokia did not do was to innovate beyond the basic features. For example, it failed to see the rise in demand for clamshell phones. And finally when it did, it was too late. Similar was its response to touch screen phones and dual sim phones. I still remember reviewing one of the first touch screen phones from Nokia. I had to literally press the icons hard to make them work. Swiping across screens was a pain, and the phone froze often.

Nokia was one company that had the resources and the ability to take on iPhone, but failed to do so .

Samsung is one example of what Nokia could, or should, have done. When Nokia was successful, the UI of Samsung phones was similar to that of Nokia. Apart from its own OS, it also used Symbian. So Nokia users did not find it difficult to use Samsung phones. When Android came, Samsung latched on to it. And when Microsoft came out with Windows phones, Samsung was one of the first to jump on board. It also developed its own Bada OS.

Stephen Elop came to Nokia and brought Windows along with him. He also sounded the death knell of Symbian. Now, Nokia had put all its eggs in the Windows basket, and by the time Stephen Elop went back to Microsoft, Nokia had become a Microsoft company.

BlackBerry went the other extreme. It concentrated entirely on enterprise and corporate market and ignored the low-end consumer market. It started focussing on the youth only when its market stagnated, or even started to decline.

Though it had a range of handsets, most users did not bother to upgrade, as their main purpose - emails and messaging - were the same across all devices. And almost all devices, except models such as Torch, looked the same. There was absolutely no incentive for users to upgrade.

The youth too kept away from the dull and boring QWERTY devices, and there was no device from BlackBerry that they could relate to.

Then BlackBerry decided to launch a tablet - and messed it up. If the idea was to compete with the iPad, BlackBerry had lost the race in the beginning itself. The Playbook’s UI was not intuitive, and it required a BlackBerry mobile to connect to the Net. Prices were slashed, and many of those who bought it used it as a gaming device.

For a company already in the pits, BB10 was expected to give a boost. But when the BB10 devices were launched, it was clear that BlackBerry had no plans to stop digging its grave. BlackBerry could have made a decent comeback had it priced its products competitively, but it didn’t. Those who had switched from BlackBerry to other phones such as iPhone or Android discovered what they had been missing all along - top class UI and a great app ecosystem. BB10 had top class UI, but to lure its old clients back, it had to be far better. And the high pricing ensured nobody bought them.

Even in Indonesia, one of BlackBerry’s top markets, it is failing. A Reuters report quoted Prashant Gokarn, chief strategy and planning officer at Indosat, saying his carrier was one of two chosen for the domestic launch of devices running BlackBerry's new BB10 operating system earlier this year.

"There was a lot of excitement at the time, but somehow the excitement did not translate into large numbers," Gokarn said, adding that most customers are now likely to use a second-hand BlackBerry, and carry it alongside another smartphone.

As I type this, BlackBerry has slashed the price of Z10. A glance at the comments in social media show what was wrong with the original pricing. Most of them were of the view that this should have been the original pricing.

It is this lack of aggressiveness -- in innovation and pricing -- that have been the bane of Nokia and BlackBerry. It has become almost impossible for what were once iconic companies, to regain their lost ground.

dinakaran.rengachary@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on September 26, 2013)
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