Tête-à-Tête: Has John Chen lost his mind?

John Chen BlackBerry Classic

Welcome to Tête-à-Tête, a series where two of our writers converse on interesting topics in the mobile landscape — through chat. Think of it as a podcast for readers.

This week, they discuss whether John Chen’s outburst for content neutrality was a problem for the company.

Douglas Soltys: Normally I slide into our unmatched debates with a roundabout eloquence to help set the context. Not today.

John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry, has published excerpts of his letter written to a U.S. Senate Committee on net neutrality. In it, he argues that in addition to carrier neutrality, there should also be application and content neutrality, stating:

“Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them.

“Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet.”

Daniel, has John Chen lost his mind?

Daniel Bader: This is a very interesting subject, and not for the reasons onto which most people in the media are latching. Chen isn’t necessarily saying that he thinks Netflix should be forced to build a BlackBerry 10 app, but that the conditions that allowed Netflix to ignore BlackBerry — namely, utter dominance from Android and iOS — should not be allowed in this free market.

Yes, it’s crazy, but there’s a tinge of sensibility in there if you look at it sideways. Namely, we talk about regulating the carriers all the time — what they can and cannot prevent us from doing to and with our devices — but we rarely, if ever, talk about the ecosystems and services that are just as important to our daily lives.

The move is also about rebranding BlackBerry as an open, flexible provider of software and services, distancing itself from its history of having BBM and BES as closed systems. The letter is as much about marketing as it is about practical lobbying — just look how much media attention he is getting as a result.

So no, I don’t think he’s losing his mind, but it does betray some rough-around-the-edges mentality from a rogue CEO. Will this damage the company’s reputation going forward?

Douglas Soltys: Yes, it does hurt the company, both for the inanity of the argument as well as the way Chen made it.

First, the condition which allows Netflix to ignore BlackBerry is that both companies function in a free market. In equating neutrality with enforced distribution, Chen has confused discrimination with discernment. There is a large gap between a carrier restricting access to content for its own financial gain and a company choosing not to support a lagging platform because it makes no business sense. Looking at something sideways might make it more interesting, but that’s only because your perspective is off.

Regardless of the merits of Chen’s argument, his approach smacks of the hubris and tone-deafness that afflicted the company’s former co-CEOs. Let’s ignore for a moment that Microsoft, in a similar situation, has more-or-less kept its mouth shut and exported its services to where its customers are. If Chen truly believes in app and content neutrality, he should have spent more time laying the groundwork for his radical argument, building a narrative over time about the benefits of open platforms for both businesses and consumers. To essentially copy and paste a letter written to a U.S. Senate committee, without any articulation of how such a mandate should be enacted and enforced, forces the general public to draw their own conclusions – or in this case, dismiss it outright as absurd.

So I take this as Chen’s first major misstep, and one that undercuts his previous efforts. Chen has spent the last year as CEO convincing the world that BlackBerry was, in fact, not dead and could still be a major tech player. He has been fighting against a narrative that BlackBerry was out of touch; this stance on ‘app neutrality’ reinforces that narrative.

I simply can’t understand why he thought this would be a good idea, or even what, if any, benefit BlackBerry would derive from it.

Daniel Bader: I believe there is a modicum of rhyme to Chen’s cockamamie reason. Yes, the method was careless, and it makes the company as a whole look particularly bad given its history as a closed-system proprietor, but that’s exactly what Chen is trying to undo. Regulating app and content ecosystems is clearly a no-go, but framing BlackBerry as a proponent of this philosophy is what Chen had in mind.

Think back to how Google sold Android before it decided that the best thing it could do was close it off (as much as it could given its guarantee of a modicum of openness) and control what it could. Google sold Android on its endless possibility thanks to the very same mindset that Chen has undertaken. He needs to push for content neutrality because there is no other endgame. He’s proven that he can bring the company back from the brink, but his next accomplishment will be actually turning BlackBerry into a functioning and profitable company once again. Being able to say that every service the company creates will be available on all mobile platforms is inherently a selling feature.

Whatever the reason for his madness, Chen knows what he’s doing. This may have been a misstep, but it was less for the content than the timing and method of delivery. Chen will live to see another day in the media’s eyes, that’s for sure.