BlackBerry CEO Lobs Desperate Hail Mary to Bolster His Company

John Chen. He's the Executive Chairman and CEO of BlackBerry. Mr. Chen took over from the cofounders who allowed Apple to snatch away BlackBerry's hegemony over the smartphone industry. You might remember those two. Their big plan for iPhone-killers and iPad-killers was supporting Flash. It didn't work out so well.

John ChenJohn Chen
Executive Chairman and CEO of BlackBerry

In the roughly 15 months since he took over BlackBerry, Mr. Chen has delivered the company from death's door. Using a well-articulated strategy of focusing on services, Mr. Chen has convinced Wall Street that BlackBerry has, if not a bright future, some kind of future. That's no mean feat, but on Wednesday, Mr. Chen took us in a new direction, and that direction leads to nowhere good.

The very short version is that BlackBerry's CEO told the world Net Neutrality is less important than "app neutrality." What is app neutrality? That's the "profoundly stupid" idea (as PCWorld put it) that all apps and all services be required to run on all mobile platforms.

That's right, all platforms. Regardless of application programming interfaces (APIs), software development kits (SDKs), features, capabilities, updates, installed user base, device capabilities, carrier support, or any other consideration, app developers and service providers must support all of the platforms.

Mr. Chen's own words:

Neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.

Bad Ideas

Profoundly stupid really doesn't even come close to how utterly devoid of logic Mr. Chen's proposal is. It's even more unworkable than the U.S. and UK demanding backdoor access into encrypted messaging services. But, Mr. Chen, a technologist, should know better.

As part of his argument, Mr. Chen pointed out that BlackBerry has made BlackBerry Messenger available on competing mobile operating systems, while Apple keeps iMessages on iOS and OS X. He calls this unfair, but what he left out of his blog post is the reality that BlackBerry Messenger was available exclusively on BlackBerry hardware for years.

The company didn't bring it to other platforms until iPhone and Android took all the market share, threatening BlackBerry's very existence. BlackBerry was forced to extend BlackBerry Messenger to iPhone as the foundation of its new services-for-profit business model. If people were still buying BlackBerry handsets, Messenger would likely still be limited to those handsets.

And because nobody buys BlackBerry handsets, developers and service providers don't develop for the platform. That begets a vicious circle of decreasing consumer demand, but such is the way of business. The market has found BlackBerry wanting, and Mr. Chen's solution is to ask for government mandates forcing developers and service providers to support his platform.

It's so nakedly self-serving; but worse, it would never work.

Worse Ideas

Let's go back to 1999. Apple's Mac market share has been plummeting for years. Everyone knew that if you wanted to make money with software, you had to develop for Windows. This had its own vicious circle for Apple, which those same "everyones" knew would soon close up shop.

Can you imagine if Steve Jobs had demanded legal protections forcing Windows developers to support the Mac? Technically, to match Mr. Chen's proposal, Mr. Jobs would have asked that every flavor of Unix, Linux, Solaris, OS/2, SGI, BeOS—and I think Amiga was still kicking—be supported by all software.

Everyone would have known he really meant the Mac, but the point is Steve Jobs would have been the laughing stock of the tech world. Then again, Mr. Jobs didn't think like that. He did not and would not have made such a proposal.

2007 called, and it wants its idea of a smartphone back.

BlackBerry 10 Smartphone Lineup on January 22, 2015
6 of These Devices Have Physical Keyboards

My point, though, is that not all OSes have the same capabilities. Not all hardware has the same features. To make "app neutrality" work, we either have to have a platform-agnostic intermediary engine like Java—remember Java?—or developers would have to recode their wares to run natively on all of the platforms.

Either way, we would immediately descend into this lowest-common denominator world of crappy, buggy mobile apps. And that world would be dominated exclusively by established companies with the resources to code-for-all. Small developers with an idea for an app would never in a million years be able to bring that app to market.

If this had been the law in 2007, you could forget about the App Store revolution. We'd never have seen all the amazing ideas brought to life about millions of developers across the world.

But heck, BlackBerry hardware would still be artificially competitive, and I guess that's all Mr. Chen cares about.

So far, the tech world is reacting with the ridicule John Chen's proposal deserves. I hope he takes in stride and gets back to transforming BlackBerry in a competitive services company. He should leave the public policy debates to others.