If You Can't Stand the Blood, Get Out of BlackBerry's Emergency Room

BlackBerry's newly appointed CEO John Chen compares his new job to a blood-soaked emergency room. Is he the right doctor to clean it all up?

Anders Bylund
Anders Bylund
Jan 13, 2014 at 2:00PM
Technology and Telecom

BlackBerry CEO John Chen is not afraid to get some blood on his bespoke suit. Source: BlackBerry corporate blogs.

John Chen just upgraded his BlackBerry (NYSE:BB) title, dropping the "interim" part of his "interim CEO" title. He knows it won't be a walk in the park.

In an interview with Re/code, Chen underscored the challenges ahead -- and how much he relishes wrestling those demons.

"I am abnormal," he said, because most executives would prefer "a safer, easier job." BlackBerry is sick, in Chen's opinion. As the doctor on call, he should worry more about fixing what's wrong and less about dwelling on how the patient got sick. And that might take some messy work.

"If you are an emergency room doctor, you should not be afraid of the blood," he said.

Tough words indeed, and a refreshing 180-degree change from the blissfully optimistic view of predecessor Thorsten Heins. "No drastic change is needed," Heins said when he took the CEO post in 2012. Chen disagrees.

Chen aims at recapturing the corporate market, where BlackBerry devices and messaging services once defined the space. To do so, he wants to build engineering and sales offices closer to major business hubs like New York City and the San Francisco Bay. Getting closer to your actual customers is never a bad idea, so kudos to Chen on this one.

He also hopes to keep the BlackBerry messaging platform relevant despite the rise of WhatsApp, Line, and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iMessage, just to name a few major rivals. That might work with a corporate-market focus as well, but Chen will see plenty of fresh blood if he wades into the consumer market again.

Last but not least, Chen noted that the QNX platform that's at the heart of BlackBerry 10 also is a market leader in the automotive market. Exploiting that strength would be timely as both Apple and Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) want to undermine BlackBerry's in-car expertise right now.

For example, Audi announced a QNX-based system two years ago, but the German car builder also works with an Android-based Google system nowadays. At the same time, Apple is stealing contracts with BMW and General Motors (NYSE:GM) away from QNX. BlackBerry has plenty of experience with losing business to Google and Apple in the smartphone and tablet spaces -- will this market be any different?

Maybe not, but John Chen is at least walking into these challenges with his eyes wide open. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, right?

I don't think that John Chen can win three wars at once, but it might be enough to score one or two wins. The next time General Motors wants to redesign the audio/video/navigation systems in its Cadillacs or Chevrolets, I expect Chen to do whatever he can to steal that business back from Apple and Google. He'll do the same when GM's 213,000 employees need a standard corporate messaging system, playing up BlackBerry's experience with secure communications and a sweet discount deal to boot.

Let the consumer market slip away, Mr. Chen. Your BlackBerry might stand a chance in these core markets as long as your head is screwed on straight.