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BlackBerry: Aaah, Microsoft, we meet again.. for another deathmatch

Ballmer: Bring me the head of Alicia Keys, and let's end this

What is it with technology giants plonking award-winning pop vixens into top jobs to tout their new gear? Are they a mere distraction or underrated business executives?

RIM, sorry, BlackBerry made Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys its global creative director for its BlackBerry OS 10 launch along with two new mobes.

According to the Canadian biz, Keys will “work closely with app developers, content creators, retailers, carriers and the entertainment community to further shape and enhance the BlackBerry 10 platform” on books, film, and apps.

Keys isn't known for her QNX kernel hacks nor her knowledge of HTML5. Twitter wags weighed in: “When a tech company trots out an ‘official celebrity endorser' you know they are spending their money wisely,” one quipped. Online music locker entrepreneur Michael Robertson added: “Lookout iOS, BlackBerry hired Alicia Keys.”

Tech companies love to associate with celebs as much as some celebs like to rub shoulders with shiny tech. Electronics giants and software leviathans hire megastars to reach millions of fans, start viral marketing and boost sales, ideally - Keys has 11,000,000-ish followers on Twitter.

Microsoft last year paid Jessica Alba to launch Windows Phone 8; compared to Keys, Alba's a serious B-lister, known more for modelling work than her film and TV roles and the object of desire among certain circles of geek.

Yet Alba may prove up to the task of taking on Keys. Robertson was free to poke fun at Blackberry's new exec hire, but wrong to single out Apple's iOS. The fight for BlackBerry isn’t with Apple or Android. It's against Microsoft in a struggle to become the third biggest smartphone provider.

You don’t have to take my word for it – take the word of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “We're in absolute good shape in order to be a very strong third ecosystem in the smart phone world,” the shy and retiring man himself told Wall St in 2011 when Windows Phone 7 was on the market.

Before Apple and Google's Android rocked up with games and 69p apps, the smartphone existed as a serious business device for serious business types. That market was owned by RIM and any suits denied a BlackBerry on expenses got stuck with a Windows Mobile phone instead.

Steve Jobs' iPhone changed everything and while Ballmer mocked the threat of the Cupertino mobile to his very serious Windows Mobile business, Apple exploded as a consumer device. Six years later your humble hack is fending off pitches from PR companies hyping up the workplace tech-gasm that is Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

And six years later, Microsoft and BlackBerry are competing again – only this time it’s not a cosy pillow fight for a duopoly. It’s a street brawl to eke-out a healthy and sustainable share among consumers, business users, application authors, handset makers and carriers. For BlackBerry, its survival is on the line; for Microsoft it's the future of its mobile operating system and damage to its prestige and corporate reputation should that business fail.

Just don't mention Novell, not yet

The pair are coming from totally different trajectories in this fight. Microsoft is growing slowly from a position of zero, riding mostly on Nokia's overly colourful hardware. BlackBerry's star is falling and bleeding market share. The history of companies fighting Microsoft is that once a downward momentum is achieved, it’s impossible to recover.

That’s partly because of the nature of business and the increasingly desperate moves of those in a terminal velocity, which creates a tail-spin of short-term measures that disorientates the victim. Also, it’s a comment on the tenacity, focus, resourcefulness and sheer quantities of cash Microsoft has thrown at development, marketing and the distribution channel. If you want a lesson in history, look to the decline and fall of Novell, Borland and Palm.

Unlike those Novell, Borland and Palm days, BlackBerry and Microsoft - from a technology perspective - are fairly evenly matched. It’s difficult to explain why BlackBerry was so late in delivering version 10 of its OS - now QNX powered - and the new touchscreen Z10 and QWERTY-keyboard Q10. BB OS 10 and Windows Phone 8 offer multitasking, come with app stores and are touchable.

Both companies rely on intense loyalty from their shrinking (in BlackBerry's case) or small (in Microsoft's corner) core of fans: BlackBerry’s saviour could be its instant-messenger, integrated with so many other functions – it’s a lifestyle for some.

Windows Phone 8 groups together related activities in a unique display. Both can be considered relatively secure, too, lovingly cared for by their owners with security and over-the-air updates. Only Apple is comparable on the software front.

That makes this not a technology battle but a war of distribution and wits. In many ways it’s a battle made complicated by the fact both companies are fighting to become many working users’ second choice of phone rather than their only phone.

Ride any train at rush-hour and you’ll see many, many blank-faced commuters thumbing not one but two handsets: a work phone and their own device. The latter is an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy pocket-stroker. A battered BlackBerry is the other.

It's BlackBerry’s job is to hold onto those existing users by persuading them to upgrade to the OS 10 phones. Microsoft’s challenge is to persuade these people to switch to Windows Phone 8; Microsoft is helped by the fact its brand is business-friendly thanks to Windows, Outlook and products such as SharePoint and that corporates want a counter to Apple, known for policing its software stores for dodgy apps but otherwise accused of shrugging off security problems.

Given BlackBerry doesn’t, yet, license its natty operating system to others, Microsoft can easily out-flank BlackBerry by signing up more handset providers – but only if these operators can get past Microsoft’s love for Nokia. BlackBerry can squeeze around Microsoft by lining up service providers.

Both are hobbled by the fact carriers and phone shops want what’s hot, to make the sales and double their commissions - and right now what's hot is Samsung and Android, for now. Success in smartphones is a chicken-and-egg problem; Windows Phone and Blackberry need to crack a market owned by Samsung and Android, which are selling the most because they are popular.

History dictates that BlackBerry should succumb to Microsoft, but the smartphone market makes the mighty Microsoft as vulnerable as BlackBerry. Like the British economic recovery, Microsoft’s mobile recovery could easily be set back or snuffed out.

Maybe Microsoft and BlackBerry should have paid for Justin Bieber instead. ®

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