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Will BlackBerry find a niche in 2014?

Friday, January 10th 2014 by Cable.co.uk
Will BlackBerry find a niche in 2014?
2013 was a catastrophic year for BlackBerry, but John Chen's leadership seems to have given the Canadian smartphone maker a new lease of life.

Even amid the hubbub of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, BlackBerry managed to make headlines this week - though admittedly, it wasn't announcing new smartphones.

First, news broke that the struggling Canadian smartphone maker had axed singer-songwriter Alicia Keys as Global Creative Director - a year after giving her the gig as it launched the BlackBerry 10 series to much fanfare.

In retrospect, Keys' appointment probably seems something of an embarrassment to BlackBerry bosses - she even started off by tweeting about her new job from an iPhone.

Secondly, John Chen - hired as interim Chief Executive following the firm's aborted sale to Fairfax Financial Holdings in November - revealed to Bloomberg that most future handsets from BlackBerry would feature physical keyboards, unlike the flopped 10 series.

These stories follow a disastrous year for the company, which was once cock of the roost in the enterprise mobility sector. In the three months between July and September, it posted losses of almost one billion USD (£600 million) and was forced to dismiss around 40 per cent of staff worldwide. Even then, BlackBerry's fortunes had further to fall - the company reported a staggering 4.4 billion USD loss in the following quarter.

Mr Chen - who appears to have had 'interim' dropped from his job title this year - subsequently outlined radical plans to turn the firm's fortunes around, including a shift in focus to enterprise services and a new device manufacturing deal with Chinese iPhone producer Foxconn.

To the casual observer, the prospects of a company in such dire financial straits probably don't seem too healthy. This is supported by the fact the smartphone market is maturing rapidly and increasingly Android-dominated - in fact, the International Data Corporation's most recent Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker found BlackBerry's market share had dropped from 4.1 to 1.7 per cent year on year between July and September 2013, surely a death knell for the firm.

Then again, there's something appealing about Mr Chen's leadership approach - and in the promise of new keyboard-equipped handsets, a niche market leaders like Samsung and Apple are roundly ignoring.

In fact, perhaps one of the reasons consumer-oriented devices like the iPhone are so popular in the workplace these days is that there aren't many alternatives. Instead of focusing on features that put productivity first - something a large part of the bring-your-own-device crowd should be able to get behind - BlackBerry has copied competitors, to disastrous results. Perhaps it's learnt from this now, though?

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