Last week the BlackBerry crashed. Thousands of Irish business executives were without email for a few days. For some, this was the realisation of all their nightmares, having become dependent on their BlackBerry.
In fact a more accurate description of this relationship between BlackBerry and executive might not even be “dependent on”, but possibly “defined by”, their relationship with their BlackBerry.
The Great BlackBerry Crash was yet another bit of bad news for a device and a company that once ruled the corporate world. What does the experience of BlackBerry tell us about the Irish economy? Or to put it another way, what lessons can Ireland — in a hyper competitive world where every country is competing for business, all the time, everywhere — take from the fortunes of the BlackBerry?
To answer this question we have to look back at recent history while seeking a bit of altitude from recent histrionics — such as the outpouring of anger this week on Twitter against the BlackBerry.
Let’s go back some years.
Do you remember the expression the “Crackberry”?
It was used to describe the addictive nature of the BlackBerry when the device first hit the streets. For some, the BlackBerry was as addictive as crack cocaine. People — normally corporate executives — who had never had such a device before and had presumably led reasonably fulfilled lives up to then, suddenly became addicted to instant, mobile, “always-on” communication. Having tried the BlackBerry once, they couldn’t live without it. They were hooked, hopelessly dependent on this little machine, which instantly and remorselessly took hold of their lives.
Over the years, BlackBerry addicts became a familiar sight crouched over their little hand- held machines, furiously punching the tiny keys as they zapped emails back and forth. I have played second fiddle to the BlackBerry many times as my obviously mind-numbingly boring conversation has been put on hold while the person I am chatting to looks distractedly down at their little machine which has just bleeped for their divided attention. But sure that’s life, no big deal, maybe the same thing happened to you too?
Five years ago, the BlackBerry was a world-beater, selling millions of devices for its Canadian owner, a company called Research In Motion. Revenues in the company sky-rocketed and there was a sense that this corporation had hit on the magic formula, which insured world domination. For a while, the sky was the limit. Other technology companies looked on as BlackBerry hoovered up what was essentially the mobile email market, as BlackBerry invented it.
Then of course — as certain as night follows day — the competition reacted. You can’t do well without others noticing how much cash you are making. Not only do other people copy you, but they improve on your best efforts. This is the way the world works.
First, the late, great Steve Jobs created the iPhone, which not only gave the user all the mobile communication of the BlackBerry, but also allowed people to watch videos, take photos and generally lock themselves into their own mobile world. Then even Jobs was out-smarted by the emergence of the Google Android device, which is now the fastest selling of all these new smartphones.
So what has all this to do with Ireland?
Well the story of the demise, or at least relative demise, of BlackBerry is the story of capitalism, as we know it. In every venture when you think you are doing well and you believe you have found some competitive advantage that might be everlasting, then you are doomed.
Even when we are beating the competition hands down and creating a new market as BlackBerry originally did, we only ever have a “temporary monopoly”. This “iron rule” of competition goes for companies doing well, individuals doing well or products which are doing well. It holds true for football teams or sports teams of any sort.
For example, will the Dubs win the All-Ireland next year? They might, but they sure as hell won’t win because the opposition next year, like Kerry this year, run out of steam in the last 10 minutes. That won’t happen again because the opposition won’t let it happen. They — whoever they may be — will be fitter, stronger and tougher next year and will run ’til the whistle. So the Dubs will have to reinvent.
Similarly, the lesson from the decline of the BlackBerry for Ireland is: never misdiagnose a winning streak for a permanent advantage.
Let’s think of Ireland’s economic or more aptly, industrial, model such as it is after the crash. It is based on attracting foreign companies. The companies are attracted by tax breaks and a workforce which is reasonably well educated and hard working. We have access to markets and a history of success for these types of investors.
The IDA, who are doing a good job, trumpet the education system as a key ingredient for the success of inward investment.
And by most benchmarks they are right. Ireland has, after all, received more investment from corporate America than America has given to China, India, Russia and Brazil combined.
But like the heyday of BlackBerry when everyone wanted one, these days are behind us. The world is not waiting for Ireland to sort itself out and, crucially, what made us attractive in the past is being copied by other “wannabe” Irelands all over the world. Our temporary monopoly in the foreign investment game is up.
We must reinvent the Irish industrial offer because it will be bettered by somewhere else, in the same way as the BlackBerry was copied and improved on by the iPhone, the iPhone was copied and improved on by the Google Android and the Android itself will be improved on by someone else.
This is the law of the jungle, the essential Darwinism of capitalism.
When you travel outside Ireland, you see this global hyper competition at work. I have recently spent a few days in Dubai and have seen for myself what global competition looks like both at the top end in the swanky hotels of New Dubai but also at the bottom end in the crazy trading inferno that is the Souk of Old Dubai. I am writing this at an altitude of 40,000 feet on Etihad Airways on the way home and the moral of the BlackBerry story is that we in Ireland need to get our heads around the next phase of the country’s economic development.
The world is moving on. We can’t wait any longer. We need to take our destiny into our own hands and stop messing around with our banks and our mortgage market, waiting for some European bureaucrat to give us permission to do this or that. We had a “temporary monopoly”, it is now gone. We need a new plan.
We need to seize the moment and reinvent Ireland. Otherwise, like BlackBerry, we will turn a temporary blip into a permanent decline.