Is Zoom the next Android or the next BlackBerry?

In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured out… a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.

Brand loyalty can be a red herring. Worse, it can instill hubris in a company. At BlackBerry, we would hear stories of customers “accidentally” dropping their devices into the toilet to force their IT team for an upgrade. It was hard to imagine in the mid-2000s that by the end of the decade carrying a BlackBerry would become “uncool.” This prevented the team from asking the really tough questions and, as iPhone and other smartphones suddenly exploded in popularity, many within BlackBerry would clutch these stories to themselves protectively, as if they could ward off the sudden decline in our relevance.

BlackBerry missed three key paradigm shifts that were critical to the product experience: the touchscreen, the developer ecosystem (in which BlackBerry severely underinvested) and the consumerization of IT.

All of these shifts allowed companies like Apple and Google to eat BlackBerry’s lunch — and because BlackBerry missed these shifts, a company that had been ahead of the curve on the mobile revolution for the better part of a decade was suddenly forced into a reactive position. When BlackBerry tried to force-fit the enterprise product for the consumer market with devices like the BlackBerry Curve, Storm and Tour, it didn’t work.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to learn from our mistakes when I became one of the first product managers on the Android team. At Android, we were maniacally obsessed about the product experience, not the “Google experience.” We were not shy about switching form factors, UI design and so on if we felt that the consumer preferences were shifting. The early days of Android were rife with major evolutions, and we weren’t afraid to throw things out if it meant a better product in the end. And, of course, it worked: Today, Android is used by more than two billion people and controls 86% of the global market… far, far greater than the 85 million users and 20% global market share that BlackBerry controlled at its peak.

So the question is this: Zoom is in the right place at the right time. So what’s it going to be? Is it going to be like Android, or is it going to go down the same path to irrelevance that BlackBerry once went down?

If I were to give Zoom three pieces of advice at this pivotal moment for the company, they would be this:

Focus on building the best human-to-human virtual interaction experience

Up until now, Zoom has primarily paid attention to video quality and frictionless onboarding of users, and that has paid off well for the company. But at this point, those are just the table stakes. What is going to determine Zoom’s success from here is how the company follows the users, how quickly it responds to its needs and how it can keep innovating in an increasingly competitive space.

Zoom wasn’t designed with a world in lockdown in mind, and so to stave off challengers, it will need to rapidly evolve for this post-COVID-19 world, paying attention to the intangibles. For example, in a world where Zoom is suddenly replacing the office for millions of people, the biggest feature missing are ambient conversations, or “water-cooler chat.” How much innovation happens in offices just because two people get to talking, or pop by each other’s desk casually? There are startups working to replicate that virtually, like Tandem, Slashtalk and Clubhouse.

At BlackBerry, we thought our competition would come from an enterprise company like Microsoft, not an open-source operating system from a consumer company. Similarly, Zoom’s competition will likely look fairly different than Zoom initially, but over time subsume the “office meeting” use case.

Invest heavily in the developer ecosystem and encourage user adoption

Don’t get hubristic about what the Zoom experience is or isn’t supposed to be, or try to shut developers out of building businesses upon your platform. The developer ecosystem is the only obvious network effect for Zoom, and I saw the power of this ecosystem to drive lock-in when I worked on Android. The number of venture-backed businesses built on top of Zoom should be considered a key performance indicator for the company.

Right now, for whatever reason, Zoom’s dropping the ball here. The Zoom Marketplace itself is anemic: most of the apps are by Zoom itself and are simple connectors at that. Adding new apps as a user seems confusing, and frankly, there aren’t many useful apps to install anyway: It’s totally bizarre, for example, that a $50 billion virtual meeting company with an open developer ecosystem doesn’t even have a whiteboard app on its marketplace.

Apps can go south really quickly: The developer ecosystem may not be getting much attention because Zoom is worried about viruses, malware or the end-to-end user experience. But apps are suicidal to ignore. At BlackBerry, we thought focusing on developers would take away from the integrity of our platform… but on Android, we made a concerted effort to partner with developers, to make sure their apps were on our platform. Which product is dead, and which is alive and thriving?

Leverage your market cap and unfair advantage

Sooner rather than later, there will be startups that build a better user experience than Zoom. Instead of trying to compete with them, acquire them. Facebook would be nowhere had it not acquired companies like Instagram or WhatsApp at the right time. Zoom needs to do the same thing.

But right now, it’s not. Frankly, it’s concerning to hear that Zoom, a $50 billion company, just made its first acquisition. At Google, we were constantly acqui-hiring the talent we were missing to make Android the best it could be, buying up companies like BumpTop, BlindType and PittPatt during my tenure there.

Zoom needs to pick up the pace. Again, there are countless startups working on problems that will allow Zoom to stay in the lead as the best human-to-human interaction project. If Zoom wants to maintain its unfair advantage, it needs to leverage its cash and start scooping them up.

Ultimately, the question for Zoom is whether it can innovate fast enough to evolve with the times. Given the consumerization of IT, products like Zoom have to be more than just the best B2B product on the market: they need to be the best products for their use case, period. Whether Zoom likes it or not, over time it will be competing with consumer upstarts, and not just WebEx and BlueJeans.

Because if Zoom can’t be the superior human-to-human interaction product that the post-quarantine, COVID-19-era world needs, something else will be.