At first glance, it seems the disparity between beleaguered smartphone maker BlackBerry (NYSE:BB) and industry-leading Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) couldn't be larger. Even with Apple's ho-hum stock price the past year, there's certainly no concerns about the iEverything maker going out of business. The same can't be said of BlackBerry.
With BlackBerry firmly entrenched as the No. 4 smartphone OS provider, behind Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, along with its recent management upheaval and massive quarterly losses, a comparison with Apple seems inane. But a trip down memory lane may be just the thing BlackBerry fans need to bolster their confidence.
It was 1985: Ronald Reagan was president and The Cosby Show ruled the airwaves. That was also the year Apple's board ousted the company's co-founder and ultimate savior, Steve Jobs. Looking back, it seems almost unthinkable, but Jobs was, according to an Apple board member at the time, "uncontrollable."
From 1985 until the late '90s, Apple underwent a steady descent into obscurity. The situation was so bad that, as Jobs himself would later say, it was "90 days from going bankrupt" when he returned to the fold. Now, that may have been a bit of self-promoting hyperbole, but it was clear Apple was in dire straits and something drastic needed to be done. Sound familiar, CrackBerries?
Of course, the Apple of today is a far cry from the late '90s, and that's because Jobs made the kind of tough decisions that former CEO Gil Amelio either wouldn't or couldn't, including the unthinkable: burying the hatchet (sort of) with Microsoft. Some people actually booed Jobs when he announced in 1997 that Microsoft had invested $150 million in Apple, and that there would be a Mac version of Microsoft Office. Talk about sleeping with the enemy.
Turns out, Jobs' tough, and sometimes wildly unpopular, decisions didn't cause the world to shift on its axis. Jobs did what needed to be done to save a company that was dangerously close to going under, which is what successful leaders do when their backs are against the wall.
The ouster of BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins in early November, and the subsequent hiring of John Chen, was a watershed moment for BlackBerry. After seeing BlackBerry's share of the U.S. smartphone market drop from 50% to 3% in the past four years, clearly Heins' dogged adherence to devices wasn't the answer.
Chen has since cleaned out BlackBerry's executive ranks, substituting a team more in line with his vision. Chen's new look for BlackBerry includes de-emphasizing devices (gasp!), though not exiting the business altogether. The recent deal with Foxconn to build low-end mobile devices aligns perfectly with Chen's focus on BlackBerry's enterprise business, monetizing its well-regarded messenger service, and its QNX software line, while still keeping a toe in the smartphone waters.
Final Foolish thoughts
It's safe to say that shifting BlackBerry's emphasis away from smartphones and building a new executive team weren't easy decisions to make. But Chen's been down this path before. A year after Jobs' return to Apple, Chen took over struggling software maker Sybase, a company that at the time had a "70% probability" of going under, according to Gartner. He proceeded to direct what turned out to be a remarkable turnaround.
Can BlackBerry pull off what Apple did? Only time will tell, but there are a lot of similarities CrackBerries can take solace in. The nearly 9% drop in BlackBerry's stock price last week, due in large part to the news that co-founder Mike Lazaridis wouldn't take it over and had sold 3.5 million shares, made no sense. The answer to BlackBerry's woes isn't a takeover, it's new CEO, John Chen, executing on the tough decisions required of a leader. Just like Apple's Steve Jobs had to do all those years ago.