Sony vs. Microsoft – Generation gap.

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Sony looks to be at risk in the next generation.

  • Sony is continuing to dominate the current generation of gaming consoles, but the user experience needs so much work that Sony must act now.
  • In Europe the PlayStation 4 is scoring market share of 70%-90% while it trades leadership in the US back and forth with Microsoft.
  • In many ways, I think that Microsoft has gifted this position to Sony as its dreadful launch strategy and the PS4’s slightly better gaming performance made it the strongest contender for any gamer.
  • All credit goes to Sony for really capitalising on the PS4, but when management says that it is “happy with the value proposition” I get very nervous.
  • There is no doubt that the PlayStation 4 is a fantastic games machine but for any other aspect of the ecosystem, its offering is very poor in my opinion.
  • This is not because the PlayStation is incapable of running these services effectively, it is because the user experience is so weak that users are unlikely to ever find them.
  • Sony’s PS4 user experience is little more than a bare bones user interface that a user can use to load, purchase and launch games.
  • Attempting simple tasks like uploading a gamer picture, finding other services or even giving Sony money, can be frustratingly difficult.
  • If Sony wants users to do more with the console, it has to make the experience easy and fun to use.
  • Easy and fun will encourage users to have a look around at what else is on offer before launching a game.
  • This is the key to enticing users to do more with Sony other than just playing games and I believe it is also the key to any recovery that Sony may make.
  • It is here where the Xbox One is streets ahead of PS4 and it is quite possible that in the next generation this is going to really matter.
  • Cable cutting, streaming media services and the digital ecosystem are now really taking off which combined with a concerted effort by Microsoft to make all of this easy and fun to use could make a huge difference next time round.
  • Microsoft has great coverage of Digital Life and is actively pushing greater software consistency across all of its devices.
  • This will make its user experience more consistent and more easily recognised by users who use Microsoft on other devices.
  • In contrast, Sony seems to have returned to a more siloed structure where cross device co-operation and synchronisation could be much harder to achieve (see here).
  • Consequently, I think that in the next generation, how well Digital Life services outside of gaming are provided will be a major factor in the user’s purchase decision. (This assumes that Microsoft does not make the same mistakes again.)
  • If this is a factor, then I think that Sony will be in big trouble unless it moves quickly to address this issue.
  • Sony has time as the console cycle is a long one, but developing a delightful user experience is not something that is accomplished in a heartbeat.
  • I still feel that Sony has won this battle but is at increasing danger of losing the war.
  • I think that Sony is still the only Japanese company with a chance of making it in digital ecosystem but Microsoft has better prospects and has embraced what it needs to do going forward.

 

 

Xiaomi – Method in the madness.

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Xiaomi needs to squeeze as much from the Internet as it can.

  • Xiaomi’s move to enter more markets looks like a move to generate as much volume as possible through online sales before it has to move into the traditional channels.
  • In addition to India, Xiaomi is now making a splash in Brazil and had to hold its launch event twice to cope with demand from enthusiastic fans.
  • The aim here was to show off its wares before commencing Internet based flash sales of the Redmi 2 for $160 on July 7th.
  • The problem that Xiaomi has is that internet distribution in China has allowed it to reach around 20m units per quarter but there are limits to this distribution method.
  • This is why I think that Xiaomi’s unit volumes have levelled out so far in 2015 and why it is seeking to quickly enter other countries.
  • India and Brazil are the obvious targets as they are big enough to have an Internet population capable of driving a resumption of volume growth.
  • Xiaomi’s strategy is to spread the appeal of its ecosystem in China to as many users as possible and to worry about the making money further down the road.
  • When looking at this strategy is essential to separate volumes and users in China and those overseas.
  • This is because in China Xiaomi has its own ecosystem (MIUI) but in overseas markets it appears to be using Google’s.
  • MIUI is a Chinese ecosystem aimed at delighting Chinese users and consequently is of very little interest to non-Chinese users.
  • With nowhere else to go overseas, Xiaomi has taken the fall-back position of using the Google ecosystem to help it to sell its devices.
  • The problem here Xiaomi’s differentiation is based on its ecosystem meaning that overseas it is just another Android vendor.
  • Hence, overseas there is very little scope to make anything more than 2-4% operating margins as the real value will accrue to Google.
  • I suspect that Xiaomi’s strategy overseas is to ship as much volume as possible in order that scale benefits can accrue to the hardware business on a global basis.
  • This will give greater support to the Chinese ecosystem to drive premium pricing of its products back home once it has achieved a critical mass of users.
  • RFM research indicates that this viability will be hit at 100m users with real scale and profitability coming at 300m users.
  • I think that its Internet sales channel will only get it part of the way and that it will have to enter the same channels that all of its competitors have had to enter to get to the real volume it needs.
  • This will increase sales and marketing costs meaningfully and is likely to prevent Xiaomi from generating decent margins before it reaches 300m users.
  • RFM currently forecasts that Xiaomi will hit 214m users at the end of 2018E which RFM calculates is enough to realise 7-8% EBIT margins on hardware.
  • This figure currently excludes any upside contribution from entering the traditional handset sales channels.
  • The addition of a physical sales presence and distribution infrastructure will allow that number to be beaten but at a meaningfully higher level of operating expense.
  • The net result is that there is upside to the shipment numbers and the user count but margins could end up being lower until it hit 300m ecosystem users.
  • At a valuation of $45bn, Xiaomi already looks expensive, especially when one takes into account that it has formidable competitors at home all of whom have much bigger resources with which to compete.
  • I would look to the potential IPO of Lenovo’s handset business for a more reasonable entrance into the Chinese mobile market.

 

Samsung Tizen – Policy expired.

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Tizen is an expensive and expired insurance policy.

  • Samsung has announced that it will continue its Tizen program at a variety of price points even though the Z1 appears to have only shipped around 1m units in India.
  • Tizen is an open source platform, which is effectively controlled by Samsung as it writes all the code.
  • Samsung uses it to make TVs, smartphones and smart watches.
  • 18 months ago, Tizen made some sense as Samsung was actively engaging in developing its own ecosystem and Tizen represented its fall-back position.
  • Samsung was going head to head with Google which meant that a Samsung ecosystem on Android could have become unworkable.
  • Hence, Tizen was the fall-back position for Samsung’s ecosystem should things have fallen through with Google.
  • However, Samsung abandoned all of its ecosystem efforts in January 2014 and now competes in smartphones using hardware only.
  • This is evident in the Samsung Galaxy s6 which has many individual hardware features but is a standard Google ecosystem device when it comes to software.
  • Consequently, as Samsung is no longer competing at the ecosystem level, there is no point in having this fall back position.
  • I also believe that the cross-device argument has no merit.
  • Cross device is a strategy where a device maker aims to encourage users to purchase a range of devices based on their ability to seamlessly work together.
  • Apple is a good example of this where its iPhone, iMac and Apple TV all try and work together to provide an enhanced experience.
  • Samsung has an opportunity to do the same given the range of consumer devices that it sells but there is a big problem.
  • RFM research clearly indicates that the user primarily makes an ecosystem choice based on his experience on the smartphone.
  • Almost every smartphone made by Samsung is based on Android meaning that it must make its Android smartphones work seamlessly with its other devices for this strategy to work.
  • Consequently, a Tizen smartphone makes no sense as it has no ecosystem, or apps and few users are likely to buy it.
  • Samsung will be better off ensuring its Android smartphones work well its other devices than fiddling around with Tizen.
  • For TVs and other dedicated function devices, a case can be made for Tizen, but these also come with their own sets of limitations.
  • Times are now much tougher for Samsung, and this is a drag on the profit and loss account that it simply does not need.
  • That being said, cutting Tizen is unlikely to make a huge difference and I continue to see handset margins hovering around the 10% level.
  • Samsung is once again a component company as it is Device Solutions division (Memory, System LSI and Panels) that is now the engine of profit growth.
  • The negative impact of handsets is still lingering and hence growth looks pretty anaemic for 2015E.
  • This, combined with question marks around how popular the s6 has really been, leaves me with no reason to get involved with the shares.
  • I prefer Microsoft or Google.

 

 

 

 

Google vs. Microsoft – Away game.

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Winning the away game is always the hardest.

  • Google has responded to Microsoft making its Office apps freely available on Android by re-enforcing its branding and style inside its in house Office competitors.
  • I suspect that this is just another step in Google’s long-term strategy to control and brand the experience on Android as much as it can.
  • In consumer services Google is a leader but when it comes to productivity, I believe that Google is on the back foot.
  • With its attractive pricing and by making certain elements of Office free, Microsoft has removed the single biggest incentive to choose anything else.
  • The Office apps are the best available and now they are available on every platform at the same price as the alternatives.
  • I suspect that this is why Google has moved to reinforce its brand and its material design user experience across all of the Digital Life and Digital Work assets that it owns.
  • By creating a consistent look and feel across all of its assets, it can ensure that its users feel at home, making it much easier to generate loyalty.
  • Loyalty to the ecosystem is critical because it is this that drives user preference and in turn pricing power and profitability for the ecosystem owner.
  • Microsoft is now competing with its ecosystem on both iOS and Android but on the platforms of others its task is much harder.
  • This is because Apple and Google control these platforms and are in a position to ensure that their offerings are better placed and deliver a superior user experience.
  • This is why I think it is too early for Microsoft to back away from its own platform in mobile as it is here that it can best deliver its services to users.
  • In Digital Work, Microsoft has the advantage even on other platforms as its offering is significantly better than anything else and works very well across every device.
  • However in Digital Life, it is the laggard and it is as consumers that the ecosystem choice is primarily made.
  • Hence, Microsoft must also delight users in Digital Life to be chosen as a fully-fledged ecosystem and doing this on Android or iOS is much more difficult than on its own platform.
  • Users spend more time on mobile devices than any other in the ecosystem and this is why delighting them on this device is so important.
  • Consequently, I think Google is moving to take control of Android and will effectively turn it into a proprietary OS like iOS or Windows.
  • By taking control one can ensure a consistent, easy and fun to use experience for users with its Digital Life services front and centre.
  • Google is still very far away from achieving this and hence there is still time for Microsoft to compete.
  • Fortunately, the market is assuming that Microsoft fails to make any headway here meaning that there is plenty of upside should Microsoft finally get it right.
  • Google still has upside but is not as interesting an investment proposition as Microsoft in the digital mobile ecosystem.

 

 

 

Microsoft – MS Phone home.

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There are signs that Microsoft may be backing away from phones.

  • Following the executive re-organisation last week, Microsoft’s new mission statement contains enough ambiguities to make me think that it is contemplating getting out of phone hardware.
  • The new mission is to “empower every person and organisation on the planet to do more”.
  • Microsoft frames this in the context of a mobile first, cloud first world but it is ambiguous enough such that Microsoft could dump all of its consumer assets (excluding Xbox which is specifically mentioned) if it chose do to so.
  • Against this backdrop Microsoft articulates its ambitions as:
    • Reinvent productivity and business processes
    • Build the intelligent cloud platform
    • Create more personal computing
  • Again these could easily exclude the phone business and when Microsoft discusses making “tough choices in areas where things are not working”, all eyes turn to phones.
  • The problem is that the phone business is strategically important and if Microsoft ditches it, it will make things much harder.
  • In the consumer ecosystem, the user primarily makes the choice of which ecosystem in which he will live his Digital Life based on his experience on a smartphone.
  • This is because he spends the vast majority of his time on this device and this number is still growing.
  • Having a device one one’s own platform ensures that one can develop and promote one’s own ecosystem to its best possible advantage.
  • Microsoft has made its Digital Life services available on both Android and iOS but here it is either competing against Google or against Apple.
  • Because both of these companies effectively control the devices that their ecosystems are own, Microsoft will be at a huge disadvantage when trying to promote its own services.
  • Microsoft, is already really struggling to get its message across to users on its own platform and I believe that this job will get even harder if it abandons its phone platform and relies on the platforms of others.
  • One possibility would be for Microsoft to abandon the hardware and return to encouraging other manufacturers to make devices using its software.
  • This is what it did prior to the engagement with Nokia in 2011, and even when it was perceived to be independent, it still struggled to gain traction.
  • For me, phones are a blot on the profit and loss account but they are a very small blot.
  • Consequently, I think it is too early to give up yet especially given the critical strategic importance of the mobile phone in the entire ecosystem across all consumer electronic devices.
  • Furthermore, I believe that the failure of phones it not just down to the phone business, but is also a victim of not selling the entire Microsoft ecosystem proposition very effectively.
  • I hope that Microsoft fixes the other problems first and then if phones still don’t work, then considers moving away from the hardware.
  • RFM has set three missions for Microsoft to succeed (see here) but success on only the first mission is required for the shares to have plenty of upside.
  • The first mission is to deal with the risks of declines in its legacy Windows and Office businesses which I think it has successfully done.
  • Consequently, Microsoft remains my top pick in the ecosystem followed by Google.

 

 

 

 

Spotify – Data Differentiation.

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Music is now incidental to Spotify.

  • Spotify is moving beyond the simple delivery of streaming music in order to keep ahead of its competition.
  • It has added Seed Scientific to its portfolio of data analysis assets that already includes The Echo Nest that Spotify acquired in 2014.
  • Both of these companies have offered data analytics services to Beats (now Apple Music) but now will be exclusive to Spotify.
  • This makes it very clear that Spotify means to compete against Apple Music using its significantly more advanced user experience backed up by the huge amount of user data and the algorithms to meaningfully enhance that user experience.
  • There is little doubt that Apple Music represents the biggest threat that Spotify has faced in recent years.
  • Google, Microsoft and several others have all tried to gain traction in this space and have spent vast sums doing so, but its Apple’s installed base that represents the real threat.
  • From the 30th June 2015, Apple Music will be available to all iOS users who update their devices to the latest version.
  • I expect that at least 33% of the user base will update their devices within 2 days meaning that by July 2nd 2015, there will be at least 110m users who can start their trial with the push of a button.
  • Apple purchased Beats for its streaming technology, its leading position in premium headphones but also for its curation of music for its listeners.
  • Furthermore, its three month free trial is significantly longer than Spotify’s representing enough time for a user to upload or create playlists and to become hooked on the service.
  • I am hopeful that Spotify will increase its free trial period with a special promotion and up its marketing spend to navigate this tricky period.
  • In the long-term, Spotify has the advantage as I believe that music streaming is becoming a commodity with the real differentiation moving to features and services that are offered on top of the music.
  • Good data analytics allows for better suggestions, more automated curation and the ability to understand what individual users are going to like.
  • There are also many other possibilities such as being able to reach significant numbers of users to new acts get discovered.
  • This combined with good innovations in the user experience such as track preview and Spotify Running keeps it significantly ahead of Apple Music.
  • Furthermore, its user base is closing in on 100m, giving it a significant first mover advantage.
  • The sheer might of Apple makes it a formidable competitor and I suspect that the end result will be Apple and Spotify carving up the market between them.
  • I think that from a pure user experience perspective, Spotify is head and shoulders better than Apple but Apple has very deep pockets and can easily outspend Spotify when it comes to marketing.
  • I can’t see existing users switching to Apple Music but subscriber additions may slow down as a result of this new competitor.
  • RFM predicts that there will 2.8bn smartphone and tablet users by the end of 2016E meaning that there is plenty of space for both of these offerings to co-exist, leading me not to worry too much about the outlook for Spotify.
  • I would be more concerned with the outlook for Pandora, Rdio and Sirius XM where the value that they offer to users for far less obvious.

 

 

 

 

BlackBerry Q2 15A – Too much slack

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I struggle to see a recovery at BlackBerry

  • BlackBerry reported weak Q1 15A results as the hardware business continued to drift southwards and the software business was unable to take up the slack,
  • Q1 15A Revenues / EPS were $658m / LOSS $0.05 compared to consensus of $684m / LOSS $0.04.
  • The real problem was that software revenues, which grew 153% to $137m, turned out to have been bolstered by one off revenues and IP royalties which may not re-occur in Q2 15E.
  • When questioned, management was uncertain as to what the outlook for this revenue stream was and could not commit to software revenue seeing growth at all in the coming quarter.
  • This caused some consternation as this is this revenue stream that is supposed to be driving the recovery of BlackBerry.
  • BlackBerry has set a target of $500m in software revenue by March 2016 and this number looks like it should be achievable.
  • However, long term growth in this business is much more questionable.
  • The value of wireless patents is in free fall and increasing difficulties in prosecuting those that do not pay up, will make this an increasingly difficult way to bolster software revenues.
  • BlackBerry still has security going for it and cited this as the main reason why it was able to displace MobileIron from the Royal Bank of Scotland.
  • Furthermore, in this space BlackBerry still has far more customers than its competitors and incumbency is a huge advantage as long as its offering remains competitive.
  • Unfortunately, the business of providing mobility related services to enterprises appears to be increasingly commoditised and there are players such as Microsoft and VM Ware (AirWatch) who can afford to give these services away as part of a larger package.
  • Consequently, while I think that BlackBerry has future in this space as it has far more customers than most of its competitors, how much revenue and profit it can generate from it is another matter entirely.
  • Looking at BlackBerry’s assets reveals a pretty grim picture.
  • I doubt whether there is any value left in its device business and the value of its patent portfolio is rapidly declining.
  • This leaves its cash balance and its software and service business which I believe are worth significantly less than $8.80 per share.
  • I see further difficult quarters ahead and think that there are far better places to invest.
  • Microsoft and Google would top that list both of which are likely to offer a much better return than hoping for a bounce in BlackBerry.

 

 

Microsoft – Free for all

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Making Windows 10 free is a net benefit.

  • The last remnant of doubt has been removed as Microsoft has confirmed that anyone who wants a free copy of Windows 10 will be able to get one.
  • The only requirement appears to be the installation of the Windows 10 beta version prior to the official launch date on 29th July 2015.
  • This is clearly aimed at older PCs that are running Windows XP and Vista as Windows 7 and Windows 8 already qualify for a free upgrade for up to one year after the release of the OS.
  • This is a significant move as the entire installed base of PCs is now eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10.
  • This should have a meaningful effect on reducing the number of versions of Windows that are in the hands of users and concentrating all of them onto Windows 10.
  • Windows 10 is also the first version of Windows that will truly run common code across all devices where Microsoft software is present.
  • This will include PCs, tablets, Phones, Consoles and the large screen displays that Microsoft makes.
  • Furthermore, the financial hit to the Windows licensing business will be quite small as the majority of licence revenues come from new PCs that ship with Windows already installed.
  • This business will be unaffected as users are already very used to PC pricing where the cost of a copy of Windows is included as part of the price of the device.
  • Software consistency across an ecosystem is an important part of establishing a fun and easy to use experience that users can identify with.
  • Google really struggles with this as Android is very fragmented and the chaotic nature of the user experience is a major hindrance to the appeal of the ecosystem.
  • Furthermore, the situation is significantly exacerbated by its inability to control the distribution of its software meaning that it is having real difficulty in getting any improvements it makes into the hands of
  • Apple’s has excellent software consistency across iOS devices but Microsoft can go one better by having the same code on every device rather than using one for PCs and one for everything else.
  • That being said, Microsoft has a lot of work to do to make its ecosystem delightful to users in order to win their loyalty.
  • It must also change its marketing message so that users understand why they should use Microsoft rather than just telling them that it exists.
  • Making Windows 10 free for everyone is a good first step but Windows 10 must prove to be fun and easy to use on every device before it will really see some traction outside of PCs.
  • I am optimistic that Windows 10 will prove to be a success in PCs but Microsoft must show real cross device functionality and use cases before users are likely to realise the possibilities.
  • Microsoft remains my top pick in the ecosystem as its valuation continues to assume that its ecosystem fails to win any traction outside of the PC

 

 

 

Music Streaming – Temporary gravy

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Stop Press.

  • Apple has now reversed its position and will now pay the labels for music streams during the trial period reverting to the percentage model when users convert from trial to paid.
  • I suspect that Taylor Swift will now allow her album 1989 to be streamed by Apple Music.
  • This about face does not change my view that the real problem with the economics of music streaming is the labels rather than Apple or Spotify.

Music labels likely to have share to more with the artists.

  • Taylor Swift’s withdrawal from Apple Music (see here) is good news for Spotify but it brings into focus where the real problems with music streaming lie.
  • Taylor Swift’s latest album 1989 will not be available on Apple Music during the three month free trial period.
  • This is because Apple will not be paying artists for their music during this period as per the deals it has struck with the labels.
  • Apple gets the free trial period for free but in return it will pay 71.5% (inside US) and 73% (outside US) of the revenues it receives back to the labels.
  • This is slightly higher than what Spotify pays (70%) but Spotify pays up during its free trials and also for its free users.
  • The labels then share this money with the artists they have as per the terms of the contracts signed with their artists.
  • This is where the big question mark lies as how much the artists receive and how much the labels keep for themselves is a black box.
  • Given how much the artists appear to hate music streaming, I am thinking that the labels keep the vast majority of the revenue for themselves and give only a tiny fraction to the artists.
  • I suspect that when a lot of these contracts with the artists were negotiated, music streaming was a minor issue given that the vast majority of revenues were coming from album sales and digital downloads.
  • Hence, it would appear likely that the percentage of revenue paid to an artist of the revenue from a streamed track is orders of magnitude lower than that from an album sale or digital download.
  • This is why I suspect that Spotify (and soon Apple Music) is deeply unpopular with the artists as they see it as the reason why their revenues are not meeting their expectations.
  • Given Taylor Swift’s withdrawal from Apple Music, it would appear that the economics of a track streamed from Apple Music will be little different than one streamed from Spotify.
  • As a result, I do not see Apple Music being any more popular with the artists than Spotify meaning that it will not be getting any advantage when it comes to securing content for its offering.
  • It also highlights the probability that the real culprits behind artist woes are the labels.
  • As contracts expire and need to be renegotiated, I suspect that much greater attention will be paid to this form of revenue generation and that the labels will have to give the artists a bigger share.
  • This also highlights one of the major weaknesses of Tidal where many of the acts on stage at its launch actually had no say on where and how their content is accessed.
  • Although the financial impact for Spotify and Apple Music will be neutral from the artists getting a better deal from the labels, there will be a benefit all round.
  • This is because if artists finally start making a decent return from music streaming they will be more willing to engage with it which will mean a larger opportunity for all players.
  • I still think that the streaming market will be carved up between Spotify and Apple as many of the other players are too small or too beset with problems to make it in the long term.

 

 

 

BlackBerry – Fool’s errand

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Android will probably make things worse.

  • If the leaks are right, BlackBerry could shortly launch a new device that is based on Android rather than BB10.
  • The device is thought to have a 5.4” display, 3GB RAM, quad core Snapdragon 808 processor and an 18MP rear facing camera.
  • It will also have a slide out QWERTY keyboard not dissimilar to the BlackBerry Torch.
  • These are the high-end specs of Android devices today but I suspect that by the time this device launched they may be a little behind the curve.
  • To me, BlackBerry using Android makes no sense at all as:
    • First. BlackBerry is supposed to be focusing on its enterprise customers where security and device management are paramount.
    • Android is far less secure and less easy to manage than BB10, meaning that a BlackBerry enterprise customer is very unlikely to choose it.
    • Second. Going to Android strongly indicates that BlackBerry is intending to address the consumer giving the impression of a strategy that flip-flops back and forth.
    • Third. BlackBerry will not have access to the Google Play store unless it becomes a full Google Mobile Services (GMS) Partner.
    • This will render the device to a commodity, meaning that 2-4% EBIT margins are the best it can hope for unless it obtains huge scale.
    • Huge scale is extremely unlikely even in a blue sky scenario, and I would expect BlackBerry to lose meaningful sums if it should decide to offer a GMS device.
  • BlackBerry could choose to go with the Amazon App. Store which RFM calculates that it delivers 74% equivalency when compared to Apple App. Store or Google Play.
  • This would give it the freedom to do its own thing in terms of ecosystem but BlackBerry has virtually nothing to add in this space.
  • I suspect that BlackBerry thinks that having access to third party apps will solve all of its problems but the example of Amazon shows that this is not the case.
  • Amazon has a pretty good app store but its lack of Digital Life services and the fact that the user has to pay $99 per year to get access to the ecosystem destroys what little appeal it has.
  • If BlackBerry is going down road it will have re-embark on creating a user experience and services that will delight users which history has shown it is incapable of doing.
  • Hence, launching an Android device will do nothing except increase BlackBerry’s losses in handsets further diminishing what little value there is left in the company.
  • I fear that BlackBerry still has far to fall and would prefer almost any other player over this one.