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Nokia Android phones

Nokia and Blackberry showed new phones this week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The familiar, but faded brands pin their hopes on cheap novelty phones and Android.

Nokia played the retro card with a revamped 3310. It’s an expensive novelty for indulgent spendthrifts. There are also three ho-hum conventional Android models.

A Finnish start-up made the phones under license.

Low-cost

Nostalgia aside, the only remarkable feature is that they all cost well under €299. That implies they could land in New Zealand for less than NZ$500.

BlackBerry’s once prestigious brand and signature qwerty keyboard turned up on the Keyone phone.

Both phone makers are recent converts to Android. That is not going to save them. Gimmicks aside they are ordinary phones drowning in a sea of Android handsets.

At least half a dozen brands are now ahead of Nokia and Blackberry in the Android queue.

BlackBerry Classic

BlackBerry knows all about disruption.

It was the top smartphone brand when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007.

The phone maker continued to grow for the next three years. BlackBerry customer numbers didn’t peak until 2011.

It’s been downhill ever since

Last month BlackBerry finally threw in the towel. The company said it is shutting its phone business although it plans to live on as phone software and services business.

The decision to quit making phones came after BlackBerry failed to find any takers for its ill-conceived mid-range DTEK50 Android handset.

BlackBerry launched the DTEK50 in July. It was the last roll of the dice for the firm’s phone ambitions. And frankly, a very ordinary phone; not much of a swan song for a one-time champion.

The writing was on the wall a two or three years ago, but the end was clearly in sight by the time of the 2015 launch of the BlackBerry Priv. It had the classic BlackBerry hardware keyboard and some of the firm’s security features, but used the Android operating system.

Android was never going to work

Turning to Android was always an act of desperation although it’s hard to see what else BlackBerry could do. Nothing else it tried had worked.

In 2013 the company launched the BlackBerry 10 phone operating system. That was an attempt to reboot its hardware business while there was still a sizeable installed base of users.

The market did not bite.

BlackBerry 10 out on its own

BlackBerry 10 is unlike any other phone operation system. Instead of presenting users with an Apple, Android or Windows Phone-style home screen, everything revolved around the phone’s messaging features.

On one level that is smart — messaging is a core phone function. Most people spend a lot of their working day using communication tools such as voice calls, SMS messages, mail and so on. Putting this all in one hub along with social media notifications makes sense.

Except that work is only part of a phone’s job. People also use them for entertainment.

Too much like work

The BlackBerry 10 operating system always makes you feel like you’re at work. That might endear BlackBerry to slave-driving company bosses that buy phones to give to staff. It’s no way to win friends among the masses. Almost no-one spend their own money on a BlackBerry.

The other odd thing about BlackBerry 10 is that it is all gesture-based. The gestures aren’t hard to learn and use, but it doesn’t remotely resemble any other phone operating system.

Another thing BlackBerry 10 got right from the company phone buyer perspective was the baked-in security. You could set boundaries between personal and work phone use.

Again, this is hardly likely to be popular with ordinary folk. They would see this as a barrier between them and the fun aspects of owning a phone.

Software deficit

BlackBerry could probably have got away with all of this if only it could have persuaded the makers of popular phone apps to write software for its devices. They didn’t. Even when they did, the apps were second rate or not updated.

The latest IDC smartphone figures measure market share for Android, iOS, Windows and others. BlackBerry 10 is not the only ‘other’ but all of them added together only make up 0.3 percent of the market. That’s a rounding error.

Lots of wise commentators offer theories and analysis on where BlackBerry stumbled

The die was cast the day the iPhone launched. Among other things, BlackBerry wasn’t looking at the threat. Apple’s iPhone was seen as a consumer phone, BlackBerry made business phones.

Poor iPhone clone

When BlackBerry finally got around to responding to Apple, it made a poor iPhone clone with a weird OS. Perhaps if it had at that point extended the classic BlackBerry keyboard phone range into the consumer space it might have won repeat business from its own customers.

Instead, they picked up Apples and Androids instead. BlackBerry’s 2013 reboot was at least 18 months too late and the phones were lacklustre.

For the last three years BlackBerry has talked about playing to its clear strengths. It knows how to make phones secure and it knows how to help company technology departments integrate phones into enterprise IT. There is a future in that.

At the New York Times Ian Austin writes:

…struggling Canadian smartphone maker BlackBerry made a sharp detour from its history on Tuesday when it announced it was discontinuing the last phone to have the traditional version of the company’s iconic physical keyboard and trackpad.

BlackBerry keyboard phones were essential business tools back when most other so-called smartphones were toys. You could handle mail while on the move, write memos and short notes.

While a few journalists typed news reports using the tiny keys, the ergonomics bordered on criminal.

As everyone knows, BlackBerry fell from favour as Apple’s iPhone and Android climbed to success. It’s amazing the business has lasted this long, Nokia did not.

When, last year, BlackBerry returned to the keyboard design with the BlackBerry Classic phone, it was so retro I described it as a Steampunk phone.

BlackBerry claimed typing on a tiny keyboard was more productive than using a screen keyboard. My testing found that wasn’t true. While it was satisfying to feel keys move, it did nothing for my writing speed. In fact, the tiny screen made me less productive.

Blackberry Priv

BlackBerry‘s Android model, the Priv, failed to revive the company’s phone sales. According to Juniper Research, BlackBerry only sold 734,000 phones in the last quarter of 2015 — a total of 3.7 million for the full year.

If anyone is interested, the phone went on sale in Australia today.

Microsoft‘s Windows phone fared little better than BlackBerry with just 4.5 million sold during 2015. Market share dropped 57 percent. If there was a new Microsoft phone launched during the year, no-one told us about it in New Zealand.

BlackBerry and Microsoft are just two victims of a wider malaise. Worldwide phone sales have stalled, if not peaked. The total number of phones sold in 2015 from all brands was 1.4 billion and, for now, no-one is predicting more than a percent or two increase in sales for 2016.

Samsung still sells more phones that any other company. It saw a one percent increase in 2015 to a total of 317 million sales. Even evergreen Apple warned of slowing sales.

Elsewhere it’s a bloodbath. Sony and HTC both saw huge drops of 36 percent year-on-year despite interesting new launches.

A number of readers have commented that moving to Android would save BlackBerry or Microsoft’s phone business. It was never going to happen. Even the companies that have stuck to Android for years struggle to earn money from making phones.

A better strategy for Microsoft and BlackBerry would be to focus on phone software, both have key apps that large companies — read that as deep pockets — need.

Update: Original story said LG sales were down 36 percent instead of HTC.

blackberry

Blackberry can’t sell phones using its own operating system. What makes it think moving to Android will change that?

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, BlackBerry 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.

Blackberry? Meh

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.

Android bloodbath

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. BlackBerry doesn’t have much money left to splurge on advertising.

There are two possibilities here. One is that BlackBerry is dipping its toe in the Android pool to test wider acceptance of its technology for a different project.

The other possibility is that BlackBerry 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 that BlackBerry sold just 800,000 in the first quarter of this year. That’s a tiny number for a phone maker in 2015. 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 BlackBerry 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.