Learning SDN by Picking Blackberries

Here’s a question to ponder; “How is Blackberry like most vendors’ SDN strategy?”  The answer is “too late to the revolution”.

RIM, who changed its name to “Blackberry” to reflect the market reality of where brand loyalty lies, is looking to re-launch more than a name.  They have the almost-insurmountable task of making their new phone and new OS relevant in a market that’s already strongly polarized into two camps—and Blackberry isn’t either one.

All of this stems from RIM (as they were then) committing what I think is the cardinal-and-yet-all-too-common market sin of holding back on an aggressive move in a changing market.  Had RIM simply announced something iPhone-like when the iPhone first came out, there might well have been no Android and for sure there would have been no problems on the company’s horizon.  Now?  Well, in some sense it’s too late.

Some pundits are saying that the key to Blackberry’s future will be in luring app developers.  Not true.  There’s unlikely to be any path for Blackberry that leads to developer success approaching Android, much less Apple.  There’s a developer dimension in any successful re-launching of Blackberry, but the key is the cloud.

Right now, Blackberry’s competition is using the cloud for simple storage-and-sync applications.  Blackberry can’t even match that, right now, because they say they’re working on their own approach.  Well, that approach had better be a much more “cloud-as-a-feature-host” model, because that’s the only way it will matter.  Sync has been done, like apps.  What has not been done is a handset that uses the cloud as a functional extension, not a memory extension.  That’s what Apple should do and likely won’t do (till it’s too late) because Apple doesn’t want to devalue its own handset-is-cool model. For Blackberry, immobility of an opponent is an invitation to attack…or it should be.

Blackberry could do truly cloud-hosted UC, setting up an email and IM/Jabber/Text client that would mediate all of the user’s channels and let Blackberry stand at the intersection.  It sort of does that now with its single view of mail or IM regardless of accounts.  But instead of pulling all the junk to the device, Blackberry should make the connections inside the cloud, construct a policy-based view, and export the view to the device.  If they did that they would be able to selectively support even Apple or Android devices (via HTML5).  They could then look at other applications that could benefit from having a cloud agent—which is nearly any productivity app.

Speaking of apps, there’s that app dimension I promised was there.  Blackberry needs to refine its target market first, though.  You can’t say “I’m a consumer handset”, it’s like being a one-size-fits-all shoe.  There are segments of the consumer market that haven’t committed convincingly to Apple or Android.  Identify those segments, Blackberry, and then find the apps THOSE SEGMENTS want, without trying to get all the app developers wooed over.  Blackberry’s original success was built on one app—email.  Going from one-app to all-apps is too big a step.

What does this have to do with vendor SDN strategies, you may ask.  Well, go back to that cardinal sin I opened with.  You can’t come late to a revolution.  It’s not easy to analyze the SDN strategies of the key vendors in the network equipment space, but it’s fair to say that so far 1) they lack details, 2) they’re more defensive than revolutionary, and 3) they’re broadening their SDN appeal by broadening what “SDN” means rather than broadening their opportunity through functional advances.  And remember my earlier blog; you can’t make a market bigger by segmenting it differently.

Most vendors are in SDN-neutral here.  Cisco did nothing much at its partner event, blowing a big chance.  Juniper did NFV instead of SDN at it’s event.  Alcatel-Lucent seems to be following Cisco’s detailed-at-the-edge-vague-inside approach.  Ericsson has articulated the pieces of SDN and seems to be embracing a radical OpenFlow model in its experiments and conference demos, but it’s not productized.  Huawei has demonstrated prototype applications in optical-SDN control.  HP has delivered an OpenFlow controller and some SDN applications, but seems curiously reticent in pushing its own, potentially leading, position.  NSN, with its new focus on wireless, seems to be working to find out whether SDN matters to it, and if so how.  Smaller vendors like Brocade, Extreme, and Infinera are more SDN-proactive, and of course the startups are positively SDN-strident.

Is there an “Apple” emerging here in the SDN space to relegate a major vendor to “Blackberry” status, far behind and hoping to re-launch itself?  There could be.

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