Overseas media are gushing about a new phone from BlackBerry. That’s something that hasn’t happened for a decade.
The excitement is about the Priv. It’s an Android phone, but not another me-too device aiming to knock Samsung off its perch.
Priv is different. It has a touch-sensitive QWERTY keyboard that slides down from the case. It also uses BlackBerry’s enterprise-grade software, security and the clever unified messaging hub.
These are features that once made BlackBerry the darling of business phone buyers everywhere.
Top-end smartphone specs
Otherwise the Priv boasts the usual top-end smart phone specs along with a 5.4 inch display that curves on both sides. Screen resolution is 1440 by 2560 pixels which means more than 500 pixels per inch resolution. The rear camera has an 18 megapixel sensor.
Priv also has a top-end price. The Carphone Warehouse in the UK is advertising the Priv for £580. That would make it around NZ$1275 at today’s exchange rate.
BlackBerry hopes overlaying BlackBerryness on top of an official Google supported version of Android is the secret sauce corporate phone buyers have waited for.
You say you want a revolution
Stand by for more disappointment. Although there is a loyal BlackBerry underground, it isn’t about to start a revolution. The BlackBerry train left the station a long time ago.
It is possible — that’s the strongest available adjective — BlackBerry would have sold phones by the million if it had gone with Android two years ago.
That was when the phone maker rebooted after being humiliated by Apple. A decade earlier it dominated smartphone sales. The iPhone swept it aside like a mosquito before a storm front.
Instead of picking Android, the phone maker pinned its hopes on the BlackBerry 10 operating system. It was an idiosyncratic approach, having little in common with the user interface on iOS, Android or Windows Phone.
Idiosyncratic but practical
BlackBerry 10 was more secure than other smartphone operating systems and revolved around a message hub. It was streamlined for dealing with incoming calls, messages, mail and social media.
It also came with a full suite of enterprise software including tools for company techs to remote manage users phones. BlackBerry also had VPN authentication, a virtual Sim service and great tools for creating and securely managing documents.
Many CIOs and managers loved the business-oriented thinking behind the OS. Yet users never warmed to BB10. Part of the reason was that idiosyncratic user interface, switching from another phone OS was more jarring than usual.
Post-iPhone, the phone market is all about consumer satisfaction. If any user cares about productivity it comes a distant second behind photos, social media updates, music and entertainment.
The bring-your-own-device trend accelerated the drift away. Organisations might fleet-purchase BlackBerry phones, but left to their own devices, workers would choose Apple or Samsung.
Nobody spending their own money seems to give a toss about the powerful business features packaged in a BlackBerry phone.
Conventional wisdom says the phone was unpopular with everyday users because of the lack of native apps. Many of the most popular apps never made it to Blackberry, nor did most of the less popular but essential niche apps. Your NZ bank doesn’t have a BlackBerry app, nor will your favourite retailer or taxi company.
Blackberry came up with a clever workaround: Users can download and run Android apps on BB10. Many apps run thanks to clever patching, but compatibility is hit and miss. Moreover, some apps that once ran fine stopped running after later OS updates.
All the way
Now BlackBerry has gone all the way. Instead of a BlackBerry phone with BlackBerry software and the ability to run Google software, the Priv is a BlackBerry phone with Google software and BlackBerry extensions.
If you think BlackBerry’s failure to capture user imagination is down to apps, then there’s a logic to making a phone able to run Android apps.
If only it were that simple.
The Android phone market is crowded and competitive. There are NZ$800 Android phones that look great and do 95 percent of what $1400 Android phones can do.
As a result almost no-one makes money from making Android phones. Android accounts for around 80 percent of all smartphone sales but less than 20 percent of smartphone profits.
The biggest and most successful Android phone maker is Samsung. It’s the brand BlackBerry will come up against most often as it tries to sell Android hardware to company accounts.
Yet Samsung licences some the technology BlackBerry says sets it apart from rivals in this market sector.
Deep pockets needed
Samsung, LG, HTC, Huawei and other Android phone makers spend a fortune on marketing. You need deep pockets to play that game. There is not much money left to spend on advertising.
There are two possibilities here. One is dipping a toe in the Android pool to test wider acceptance of its technology for a different project.
The other possibility is that the company now has such low expectations that even selling a modest number of phones will feel like success.
BlackBerry has already dipped its software toe in the Android pool. Some of its software, messaging and enterprise tools are available as apps.
Showcasing its technology with the Priv may help with its already announced option of morphing into a phone software business. It may also package things nicely for a sale. No doubt owners would be delighted if it became an acquisition target.
There were reports in the US press the phone maker sold just 800,000 in the first quarter of this year. That’s a tiny number by 2015 standards. If the Priv manages to double or triple sales volumes, the brand may stumble on for a while longer.
According to a report in The Verge the company aims to sell five million handsets a year. While that would be a start, it isn’t going to revive BlackBerry, at best it buys a little more time.