BlackBerry was once mobile’s resident unstoppable giant. At its absolute peak, it held an estimated 70 percent of the mobile phone market, it was one of Oprah’s favorite things and it became affectionately known as “The CrackBerry,” a device so seductive users felt saddened to be apart from it.
And then, as the typical narrative goes, the iPhone happened and BlackBerry became a cautionary tale about how fickle consumers are.
That narrative is a bit overstated, as Bloomberg revealed in a piece on the rise and fall of the house of BlackBerry in their team’s own words. Though the problem is often described in terms of a killing blow from Cupertino, the decline and fall started before the iPhone began its march to work domination.
“[Blackberry co-founder] Lazaridis used to come into these meetings, and it was almost like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ where he’d open the case and there would be this golden glow of devices. We were all super eager to see it. Around 2007 the glow was getting a lot smaller every time he came around,” former senior business manager Vincent Washington told Bloomberg Businessweek.
Missed opportunities abounded. For example, beloved Canadian Justin Bieber wanted to be BlackBerry’s brand ambassador, but they passed. They followed the iPad’s release in 2010 with their own tablet, and it flopped. By 2013, the BlackBerry 10 Operating System powered phone managed to both alienate the few remaining loyalists left to the brand and draw almost no new interest. At that point, most officially declared that the BlackBerry ship had sunk and value was only left in the IP it held in its creaking hull. IP that was almost bought at the end of 2013 by Wayfair, but the deal did not go through. Still, many thought, with just a sliver of the market left, it was only a matter of time.
But, as the late Yogi Bera famously said, it’s not over till it’s over.
Earlier this year an acquisition by Microsoft was rumored, but came to nothing — and today we find ourselves staring down a new BlackBerry release, an Android-enabled smartphone called the Priv.
Is it a Hail Mary? The savior BlackBerry’s been waiting for? The beginning of a comeback? An achievement both impressive and tragic? The coverage has been broad, the headlines have been a little all over the map and perhaps the drama level has been a little high (we’re looking at you Forbes) as BlackBerry releases its latest, absolute last chance mobile phone.
Luckily, we have the best answer (or at least the best collection of answers) here.
BlackBerry Priv: The Spin, The Specs And The Software
When describing the Priv (short for Privacy) phone in an editorial for CNBC a little over a month ago, John Chen, executive chairman and CEO of BlackBerry, wrote:
“Priv will be the solution for smartphone users who are learning daily of the lack of privacy they have on their current devices. Priv will be the answer for former BlackBerry users who miss the physical keyboard but needed apps. We’re responding to current — and prospective — BlackBerry users who need it all: choice, innovation, security, privacy and productivity.”
Chen has been in the driver’s seat at BlackBerry since 2013, and remains staunchly committed to mobile, even though as of his taking of the helm BlackBerry held (and still holds) under 2 percent of a market it once dominated. He has, however, said quite specifically that the newest product is not a Hail Mary, that it has been in development for the last two years and that it will not decide the fate of BlackBerry’s entire mobile product line, as it has other products in development.
The new phone has a 5.4-inch display, standing slightly shorter than an iPhone 6 Plus and weighing about the same. The Priv is thicker, however, due to the (expected) popout vertical keyboard that it houses. Because the phone is a touchscreen, users can also choose the virtual keyboard, or (as at least one reviewer did) users can use both at once.
The phone is also designed with easy-to-grip plastic on the back, particularly suiting it for one-handed use (and answering a typical complaint that ultra-smooth sleek Apple and Samsung products are easy to drop).
BlackBerry has also added an 18-megapixel camera and moved the location of the phone’s speaker to the front.
The most significant change to BlackBerry Priv on an internal level is its migration away from the house BB10 OS in favor of the Android operating system, opening up the Google store of apps (long considered the central
weakness that has historically crippled BlackBerry’s recent efforts) and Android ecosystem.
But it is a very BlackBerry-customizedAndroid, which means a big security focus.
“If you use an Android device today, chances are that it’s not protecting your privacy,” BlackBerry’s Chief Security officer David Kleidermacher wrote in a blog post that accompanied the launch of the Priv, further noting that Android’s open, multiple variations basic concept meant that, at any given time, as many as 90 percent of Android owners are carrying compromise devices completely unaware.
This is the central problem that BlackBerry, with its long and generally well-respected history of mobile device security, sought to rectify with its variation on the Android theme.
“While the Priv user interface is simple and beautiful, BlackBerry has performed extensive surgery under the hood to augment Android’s privacy and security capabilities,” Kleidermacher noted. “Android is a complex, rapidly changing, massively popular, open-source product, which makes it an attractive and fertile target for attackers. Such an environment demands world-class security incident response, and BlackBerry has a long history delivering that to customers with the highest value resources under their (and hence our) protection. BlackBerry’s vulnerability patch program is second to none in the industry.”
Kleidermacher also noted BlackBerry’s hardware, Root of Trust, a proprietary manufacturing process that injects cryptographic keys into the device hardware; Verified Boot and Secure Bootchain; hardened Linux kernel, with numerous patches and configuration changes; and BES12, the BlackBerry’s Enterprise Mobility Management platform as now built into the core of Priv’s structure. He also trumpeted the DTEK application that comes pre-installed on the phone that allows consumers the ability to monitor their phone’s security with real-time data and visualizations.
The Reviews Roll In And Are … Good?
After years of accusations of being out of touch and doomed to be a dinosaur in the age of apps, the general change in tone in the headlines must be gratifying for team BlackBerry — particularly as they watch and wait for those hard sales figures to come in.
The main and recurring positive review is about design. BlackBerry has built a product that one reviewer noted “anyone would recognize as BlackBerry from across the room, without seeing the logo.” And that is not meant as any sort of subtle dig. The compliment is offered as a compliment to the phone and a criticism of the smartphone marketplace, which has gotten “a little oversaturated with the Apple design aesthetic.”
The phone was also highly praised for its abundance of “good ideas” and the way the distinctly BlackBerry touches are combined to really enhance Google’s OS. Also particularly called out was the BlackBerry Hub, designed to be the phone’s central clearing house for email, SMS messages, tweets, calls, and all of the other various types of communications from the outside world. Hub centralizes communications into one place and gives customers various filtering options to make sure their more important streams always get top billing.
Still, not all the reviews were glowing. The new BlackBerry was praised for the quality of its ideas as often as it was dinged for the hiccups in the execution. The hardware design was praised, but the fact that models had a tendency to overheat was not. The concept behind better curated Android OS was praised, but the fact that the phone often moved slowly between those functions was deemed problematic a few times. Critics like the new camera hardware, but they weren’t crazy about the lag before the picture actually snapped.
There were also questions about an odd choice and a glaring omission. The new BlackBerry is not running on the newest Android Marshmallow OS, instead opting for the slightly outdated Lollipop until next year. It also doesn’t feature a fingerprint scanner, which most reviewers and critics truly found peculiar given the device’s overall focus on security.
The final verdict? The new BlackBerry is well-designed and has clever concepts that may help it win a few of its old fans back from Apple, particularly those for whom the love affair has faded. It might even just snap up a few new users that are looking for a high-line option that isn’t Samsung or iPhone. The reviewers seem to agree that, despite some bugs, the tech has the potential to step into that space.
But Will It Be Enough?
Whether or not the Priv can compete with the iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Edge remains to be seen, but with a price tag of essentially $700, it is certainly priced like it intends to. And while AT&T users can buy the phone at a discounted rate with a new contract, for consumers on other carriers that bust-out, retail rate is the only option for an “unlocked” phone. And unlike their price-zone rivals at Apple and Samsung, BlackBerry doesn’t have a financing program, meaning most consumers will have to like the BlackBerry enough to pay that fairly steep price up front.
And the high-end phone market is not easy to crack into, something Amazon learned the hard way last year when the Fire phone burned the firm in an epic and public flop. Critics had nice things to say about the Fire at the time — and Amazon wasn’t mounting a comeback. It was (as it is today) a rapidly growing eCommerce powerhouse with a very loyal fanbase and a well-established line of tablets already in the market.
Didn’t stop the great Fire flop.
But the praise for the Priv has been much stronger than the fainter plaudits the Fire drew, with more than one reviewer openly stating that the BlackBerry might be the most compelling reason to switch from iOS to Android.
Meaning the only thing left is to wait and see, content in the knowledge that even if this isn’t the comeback, it probably won’t really be the end of BlackBerry either.