Blackberry’s Priv smartphone, it’s first ever adventure outside the comfort (or turbulence depending on how you want to look at it) of its own software offering, will likely be a big test for the company as it tries to remain relevant at a time when its former core users have either moved on to hardware and software from rivals like Google and Apple or still totting some devices that don’t receive as much love as their counterparts in competing platforms.
BlackBerry’s share of the smartphone market has dropped from an all-time high to single digits in just a decade. The release of a new platform, BlackBerry 10, did little to reverse that. The change in leadership at the company has restored faith in some of the company’s most loyal fans but for everyone it is a wait and see situation. Will BlackBerry really be back in mobile? Is there space for the company that was once the king of smartphones and mobile enterprise security?
BlackBerry is looking to Android, the most popular mobile platform, for its resurrection. The company admits that its dalliance with Android doesn’t mean that it is abandoning its own BlackBerry platform but we all know so well that things have been so bad that it’s come to this.
The BlackBerry Priv goes on sale in several Western markets in early November. It is not always a good thing to critique an unreleased product but we’ve seen enough of the Priv smartphone to make certain observations. The Priv is a beautiful smartphone no doubt but there’s really no shortage of beautiful smartphones in the world. Neither is it 2006 when just having that BlackBerry logo on the front almost singlehandedly guaranteed a device from Waterloo success in the market.
Android is a different ball game altogether
Let’s face it: BlackBerry’s decision to finally make a smartphone that runs on Android is not one borne out of love for the platform or anything. It’s for BlackBerry’s survival in the mobile space. The company allowed developers to easily port Android applications to its BlackBerry 10 platform but that never worked. What users got were either blown up versions of the same app on the Google Play Store haphazardly put together to work on their Z10s or something that hardly ever worked. So why not make a phone that grants users access to all the applications they were missing out on? That’s the Priv’s core mission, really. BlackBerry device users can finally access all the applications they want while still locked in to the company’s software or bits of it as is the case with the Priv.
To better understand the BlackBerry Priv’s mission besides of course, getting BlackBerry out of the mobile blues, we need to ask who the target market is. Who is the Priv made for? Who does it have in mind?
From the form factor, a slider phone with a physical keyboard, it is clear that the number 1 target audience is people who’ve owned BlackBerrys in the past. Those who know how it feels to type a long email on a tiny physical keyboard. The question is, how many of those are still waiting and haven’t switched to competing platforms and shifted to devices made by rivals like Apple or Samsung? If sales of BlackBerry smartphones as of their recent disclosures are anything to go by then there’s not that many BlackBerry users to guarantee success for the Priv if they all bought into the idea to go Android. Is the Priv attractive enough to get those who’ve already been accommodated elsewhere to come back? Maybe, maybe not.
For starters, like I have already noted, the Priv is something you’d want to give a second look. It is beautiful and it brings with it some level of creativity and out of the box thinking that when you put it side by side with the best smartphones from Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei and just about any other Android OEM, you’ll find lacking. Is that enough to get us excited about the Priv?
The other thing about the Priv is that it is a high end smartphone. It will go for $700 in the United States and even higher elsewhere. At face value, this is not a smartphone for the one billion users that Google is targeting with its Android One initiative. Besides the BlackBerry user of yesteryear, this is a phone only those in the high end market segment will consider. At the moment, those are well served by their iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, Huawei P8, LG G4 and others. The BlackBerry Priv, thanks to its pricing, is going head to head with those smartphones. Its feature set even screams premium. Besides an excellent design, the Priv has a top of the range 18-megapixel camera and a Quad HD panel. For those who worship at the altar of specifications, this is enough to get them excited. I am not sure it is enough to get them out to buy it though.
Besides the keyboard, BlackBerry smartphones have some features its users go gaga over like BlackBerry Hub. Hub, will be there on the Priv and accessible easily like one would access Google Now on any Android smartphone. BlackBerry is also bundling a lot of software that it believes will add value to users. A lot of that has already been made available on the Google Play Store. Is specialized software and features enough to entice anyone to jump ship and get the Priv or any other Android smartphone BlackBerry brings to the market in the future?
The world has changed a lot since BlackBerry was last in charge of things in the mobile space. Users have gone from being locked in platforms to having access to universal applications or at least having applications they like and use on the platforms they use regardless of the maker. The lack of such has long been the cancer that eats Windows Phone and the one huge reason that pushed BlackBerry to consider Android in the first place. BlackBerry is likely to have a lot of success making its applications accessible to Android users regardless of the device they are using than having them as exclusives on its devices. Microsoft saw the light and made progress towards that end but the difference is that the Priv is supposed to bring in the numbers not give the numbers a reason not to come. Dilemma.
Priv stands for privacy as you may or may not have heard. BlackBerry is touting its extensive knowledge of enterprise security in mobile as one reason you should trust it and its new Android smartphone over other smartphones in the market. I’ll take that. There’s no denying that BlackBerry is at the top when it comes to security but hasn’t the company acknowledged that efforts by competitors like Samsung are at par with accepted standards? Isn’t BlackBerry even the one helping Samsung amp the strength of its enterprise security software, Knox?
Will the promise of enhanced security and better protection from the prying eyes of the NSA make everyone throw their fancy Galaxy S6 Edges and iPhones out of the window for a BlackBerry smartphone?
BlackBerry’s History with Updates is Murky
Android OEMs are notorious for being late in updating their devices. We recently reviewed the fantastic Huawei flagship smartphone for 2015, the P8, but guess what we found wanting besides the overzealous customization? Updates. The device is still stuck on Android 5.0 when Android 5.1.1 has been out for a while now and every device worth its salt has since been updated and attention has shifted to Android 6.0, Marshmallow, the latest version of Android. Guess who else has a terrible history with updates? BlackBerry.
BlackBerry is not known to be fast when it comes to updates and we really don’t know what to expect of it as far as Android goes since it already has such a reputation. More so when you remember that it has been controlling everything on its own. Hardware and software. For a start, unlike any serious new Android smartphone you’ll see unveiled after Marshmallow went public with the release of the new Nexus smartphones, the Priv will arrive running an already dated version of Android, 5.1.1 Lollipop. It’s a relief that the company has taken the first step to avail on the Play Store some of the applications it is bundling on the Priv but there are no assurances from any quarter about the future. Probably you’ll say that users don’t care about updates but when you’re in BlackBerry’s position where anything goes and everything matters, image and perception is everything and it definitely goes a long way to be known as the guy who won’t keep users waiting for updates long after everyone has had them.
A Little Too Late
HTC is in a crisis. In case you may have forgotten, HTC was the pioneer of Android smartphones. Sony’s mobile business has taken hit after hit in the last few years and its owners are not ruling out spinning off the business like it happened with the VAIO laptop line. In short, while Android is the most popular mobile operating system, those making the hardware are having it rough. Established vendors no less. What about a late entrant? A greenhorn. Well, BlackBerry may not be a greenhorn as far as devices go but it is one in the Android market. Regardless of its target market, right from the time the Priv goes on sale, BlackBerry effectively becomes an Android OEM and there’s no turning back. It will be looked at the same way we look at Samsung and its sizeable returns from its smartphone business and Chinese device makers like Huawei and Xiaomi.
I hate to admit it but BlackBerry brings to the market the kind of fresh thinking that it needs. The kind that is supposed to give everyone sleepless nights as they look for a response. Sadly, it’s not 2010 when such a chance probably existed. Neither does BlackBerry have the strength to fight on all the fronts that its competitors are. Android’s popularity is largely because of budget devices. Devices that cost $100 or less and not 7 times that! The markets that traditionally drive premium smartphone sales have all stagnated and with the Priv coming long after the new iPhones and just about every other device we expected this year has gone on sale, it’s tough luck for John Chen and team.