Aimed as it was at a business market, the original BlackBerry smartphone was a kind of iPhone in long pants. It was not a device that people would call “cool” and demand it come in white. The BlackBerry was prized for things that didn’t really matter to the Facebook generation: Its e-mail ran on the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which did the heavy lifting for safe communications and collaboration, features that were prized by corporate and government users.
It didn’t always work out the way it was supposed to. The smartphone’s servers had a nasty habit of crashing for hours (or days) at a time, and its makers were sometimes put into awkward positions when some totalitarian nations demanded control over its security system. Then there was a problem of upgrades. While Apple was churning out new iPhone models every six months or so, BlackBerry couldn’t keep up with that fire-wagon pace of innovation; Google came out with the Android operating system, which was put into enough different phones to compete closely with Apple. The market is now divided between Apple and the various Android devices.
All this happened without a peep from BlackBerry’s makers. Fearing they had lost interest in their product or, worse, had run out of ideas for its improvement, investors bolted, shares fell and market share plummeted to brays of derision from the largely youthful ranks of iPhone and Android fans. That left BlackBerry with a user base of almost 80 million dedicated users, not a bad number, but way below figures posted by Apple and the Android phones.
BlackBerry’s makers tried to plug the hole, which they did with their PlayBook, released in April, 2011. It was the first device the company released with the operating system that was to become BlackBerry 10 and introduced today, and was intended to capitalize on the mania for tablets. But it was missing critical features such as access to BlackBerry e-mail, calendar, and the BlackBerry Messenger service; it also came with no carrier support. The company tried to fix these problems with a version that connected to the Internet via an LTE in 2012, but it was too little, too late. The volatile tablet market had left Blackberry behind.
The launch this morning of the new BlackBerry is a logical extension of this history. It is a thin, sleek product that looks like a serious version of the iPhone. It has kept its image as the smartphone that meets the needs of corporate and government people, but also offers applications such as Facebook and Twitter. At heart, however, it still maintains a sober image, which one commentator called, perhaps with a little overstatement, “brutally utilitarian.” Well, it looks better than a brute version of a smartphone.
The company that makes the BlackBerry is no longer called Research In Motion; as of today, it has rebranded and calls itself BlackBerry. And it has come out with two new phones that run on an operating system called BlackBerry 10, which is based on a Unix-like platform called QNX, originally designed as an embedded operating system for cars, music players, military drones, nuclear power plants and other electronics. QNX is now a division of BlackBerry, and the platform has been ported into two new BlackBerry models that differ in hardware — the Z10, with a virtual keyboard, and the Q10, with a traditional QWERTY keyboard, which many of the BlackBerry faithful liked and demanded.
Despite the BlackBerry’s image as a cold-hearted phone, or perhaps because of it, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins introduced pop singer Alicia Keys to the launch broadcast from New York to six cities around the world as the company’s new Global Creative Director. Keys appeared on stage with her hair pulled back severely and wearing a black business suit, in keeping with BlackBerry’s image as a cool, clear-headed device that can still appeal to people who aren’t so straight-laced that they can’t listen to Keys’ music and love it.
Thus ended Heins’ extraordinarily long wind-up to the event. Over the past year or so, Heins had resisted releasing the new smartphones, saying they would be offered for sale when they were ready, and not sooner. This contrasted with the feverish pace of innovation set by Apple, which under the late Steve Jobs had led its fan base — and investors — to expect a revolution every few months. No company can continue that pace without paying a price, and Apple’s share price recently fell as hopes for a rapid-fire series of dizzying advancements evaporated. If BlackBerry’s phones are successful, Heins’ intentional delay might well blaze a more cool-headed path for tech companies.
A change in expectations like this might indeed be what the industry needs. The company’s stock over the last six months of 2012 more than doubled as interest in the new devices became keen, while Apple’s stock lost a quarter of its value over the same period. Still, hours after the launch of the new BlackBerry phones this morning, the company’s share price fell marginally; since investors had no time to judge the phone either by its quality or its market acceptance, one can only assume that the drop was because the phone didn’t appear to be as revolutionary as people have come to expect smartphones to be.
The phone itself comes in two flavours of hardware. The Z10 has a 4.2-inch screen and an onscreen keyboard, while the Q10 has a 3.1-inch square touch-screen with a hardware keyboard, and looks a lot like older BlackBerry models. Otherwise, the phones work identically.
The most important features of the BB10 system are called Hub, Flow and Balance. The Hub, intended for users on a tight schedule, is a central location where all messages, notifications, feeds and calendar events come and can be viewed without having to change applications, often with a flick of the thumb. Flow allows easier navigation and multitasking between apps, intended to be activated by a one-fingered (or one-thumbed) swipe.
Balance is the most important. In a day when companies’ security departments are being challenged by employees demanding the company accommodate their individual choices of smartphone, a movement called bring your own device or BYOD. Balance is designed to separate work life from home life by not permitting material that arrives via office e-mail, say, to be copied to a Facebook page, which would cause security-minded IT managers to pull their hair out. This feature does a neat end run around that problem. That’s not to say you can’t access personal apps and information from the Work section; you just can’t share information between them. So, for example, if you wanted to copy some text from a work e-mail and paste it into the Facebook application on the personal side of your phone, you wouldn’t be able to. Of course there are ways around that, but it should give users pause long enough to reconsider their actions.
In addition, the new BlackBerry 10 platform has recently been awarded certification by the U.S. Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) Publication 140-2, a security standard for cryptography; this means government agencies and others to whom security is important will be able to deploy BlackBerry 10 smartphones and BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10 right away. This is the first time BlackBerry products have been given this certification ahead of their launch.
Another interesting feature allows the user to “peek” into the inbox to check incoming e-mail or check updates from Facebook or Twitter without having to close the application you are using.
The touch keyboard has also undergone a major overhaul. It includes a second heat-map layer that remembers how you press individual keys, such as tending to hit to the right or left of the actual key itself. It also learns how you write and adapts to how you type so you can write faster and more accurately.
Smartphone makers have also been under the gun to produce a torrent of apps — applications — for their devices ever since Apple’s iTunes started offering them in staggering numbers. After heavily romancing app-makers, BlackBerry is introducing its new phones with a library of some 70,000 apps, which the company pointedly notes is more than any other smartphone had at launch, and around 10 times more than at the introduction of Windows Phone 8.
The large number is the result of intense relationship-building with developers (a series of programming events called BlackBerry Jam) as well as software that makes it easy for Android apps to ported to the BB10 device using an “app player,” which translates the way an Android app works so it can operate on the BlackBerry 10 platform.
Another new feature worth noting is BlackBerry Messenger, which in earlier iterations was basically a text-messaging service between BlackBerry users. Some 60 million of BlackBerry’s 80 million subscribers — most of them corporate — use BBM, which made it one of the company’s more important assets. In BB10, BBM has been expanded to include voice calls with their BBM contacts for free. They can start a call in an instant, and switch between texting and talking, or text and video talk at the same time. BBM, however, requires a service plan.
BBM Voice allows customers to make free voice calls over Wi-Fi to other BBM users around the world, though it might not be available in all markets. BBM Contacts must be connected to Wi-Fi to have a BBM Voice chat. It’s a nice enhancement to the service, particularly since it’s designed with a split-screen feature that allows users to talk and text or email simultaneously.
The feature, BlackBerry says, is intended for travelers who want to call home without worrying about phone charges.
Will the BlackBerry 10, in either its Z10 or Q10 form, pull the company out of its hole?
It’s far too early to tell, of course; the market will have to forget the company’s previous blunders and missteps (rebranding it BlackBerry is one way to help). Some analysts say BlackBerry is facing two hurdles: consumer-driven buying power and a chronic inability to appeal to mature market consumers. These remain to be seen. The best-case scenario for the company is that BlackBerry 10 reignites consumer and enterprise interest in the brand. In the worst case, the world just shrugs and carries on without paying further attention.
For that to happen, corporate customers will have to shrug off the IT-friendly changes, such as its good encryption, its ability to separate home and work life and its vastly improved BlackBerry Messenger. More important, potential corporate customers will have to accept devices such as the iPhone and various Android devices that don’t have these features.
But then the market has always been a fickle place.