A Failed Consumer App Might Be Your New Favorite Tool

Recently, consumer apps such as Google+ and BlackBerry Messenger have pivoted to pure business software plays—where they might have better odds of success. The reason? A natural focus on ease of use.

There’s only so much room for success stories in technology, and that means eventually some formerly dominant players, overtaken by competition, are aging out.

We saw this recently with Google+, which shut down somewhat dramatically after some data leaks, and now we’re about to see it with BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM. That instant-messaging service predicted the later success of Apple’s iMessage, WeChat, and numerous other messaging platforms, but as BlackBerry’s own fortunes faded in the mainstream phone market, so too did BBM, which will close up shop at the end of May.

It’s not even owned by BlackBerry anymore, having been sold to the Indonesian firm Emtek three years ago.

But a funny thing happened in the case of both of these services—even as their consumer-facing services prepared to close up shop, both tools will live on in forms intended specifically for the business world. Google+ rebranded as Currents earlier this month and turned itself into a work-discussion service along the lines of the Microsoft-owned Yammer; BlackBerry, meanwhile, is going to continue offering the enterprise version of BBM to customers, though it will no longer be free.

“While we respect Emtek’s decision, we’re disappointed the platform did not thrive and grow as expected,” BlackBerry Chief Marketing Officer Mark Wilson said in a news release last week. “After much consideration, we decided that BBM’s loyal users should continue to have a secure messaging platform that they can trust.”

The consumer junkyard may be hiding tools that make a lot more sense fortified with some enterprise-grade know-how.

The fate of BlackBerry has long been a pet issue of sorts in the association space (we even ran a feature about it in the magazine five years ago, written by Foresight First Executive Advisor Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, a well-known voice on association issues). But the strange thing is, despite all its changes, BlackBerry as a company is doing quite well, because it has embraced its role as a technology vendor for the enterprise, even though most people associate the firm with those keyboard-driven phones from back in the day.

And a big part of that is because it found focus in serving businesses as a vendor after it stopped aiming at consumers and building its own devices. One of its biggest markets is licensing out an operating system that’s often used inside automobiles—talk about a shift.

“That discontinuation of its hardware business initially resulted in painful sales declines, but killing off the ailing business eventually boosted BlackBerry’s year-over-year sales growth again,” The Motley Fool’s Leo Sun wrote earlier this month.

But enough about BlackBerry’s comeback, impressive as it is. For associations, there might be a broader lesson here about the consumerization of enterprise tech. There was a time when it didn’t look like the enterprise social-networking boom was going to happen—also five years ago, I described it as a chicken-and-egg problem, and I think that evidence is strong that we’ve since cracked it. If I were to give a single firm credit for this victory, it’d probably be Slack, which effectively kick-started a modernization in business apps that has continued to this day.

And there’s evidence that even tools that were originally built with businesses in mind can find consumer contexts—last month, The Atlantic published a fascinating piece about how teenagers are using Google Docs as a social network of sorts.

But the evidence is strong that even if something is a failure with consumers, there may still be lots of room for it to succeed in the enterprise. In fact, the consumer junkyard may be hiding tools that make a lot more sense fortified with some enterprise-grade know-how.

The reason for this is that these apps often scratch an itch that might be more acutely felt among businesses than consumers—even if they were developed for the former rather than the latter. And if it reverts from consumer to enterprise, that may not necessarily be a bad thing—because, let’s face it, consumer apps are generally easier to use than stuff built directly for the enterprise.

Without naming names, I’d like to recall a case where an enterprise project management app was brought into the workplace, and despite lots and lots of homework being done on the tool, it was insanely complex, to the point where we had to have “ambassadors” within the office who had been more deeply trained in the tool than the rest of us.

As you might guess from that description, the app was a flop with the company, the subject of constant complaints, and the contract was quickly dropped. Long story short, the tool didn’t make sense because it wasn’t easy to use.

Sean Nolan, the CEO of the intranet app Blink, wrote a great piece in Forbes about this issue last year. My favorite part was here:

Software should be intuitive to the people using it. The look and feel of an application need to contribute to its ease of use, no matter how complicated the problem it’s solving. Bogging your users down with tutorials and training seminars is a waste of time and unnecessary if your application is built with the user in mind. When you used Uber for the first time, did you need someone to explain it to you? Or did you intuitively understand it?

When a tool is built to solve a series of specific problems, the result is often cumbersome, due to its purpose-built nature. When a tool is built to be easy to use, the solutions to all those specific problems naturally become more clear.

And that’s why a former consumer app might actually make more sense in the enterprise than something that was built with the enterprise in mind.

(bagi1998/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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