As little as five years ago, it was unthinkable that BlackBerry would make a phone that didn’t run its own operating system. This month the unthinkable happened when BlackBerry launched its Priv smartphone running Android. And it’s excellent.
The Priv – for privacy or privilege – is an impressive device. BlackBerry have captured the best of their operating system – the messaging hub, its excellent predictive texting and security – and built their renowned security into Android, which is about as leaky as Windows once was.
The feature you’re most likely to notice first is the clever slide-out keypad. It does make the phone a little bulky, but it appeals to the die-hard keyboard fetishists.
What BlackBerry should do is release its predictive texting software as an app. When it first appeared in the BlackBerry 10 operating system in 2013 it was already superior to everything in the market. I use Swype on my iPhone for inputting. But the BlackBerry’s predictive texting is superior to everything I’ve tried, including SwiftKey, which was recently bought by Microsoft for US$250m.
About 70% of BlackBerry users have deserted the Canadian company’s handsets for Android, hence the focus on Google’s now ubiquitous operating system, says Gareth Hurn, BlackBerry’s global director for its device portfolio planning.
“They moved away from the keyboard not because they didn’t like it. We made them use a small screen and no apps,” said Hurn who was in South Africa to launch the Priv. These “loyalists will talk about missing their keyboards, but now they are invested in an ecosystem” of apps.
Indeed consumers increasingly opt as much for smartphone brands as much as the apps (like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Spotify, SnapChat, etc) they use on them.
The Priv’s capacitive keyboard is an excellent addition to using the phone. It may make the phone slightly thicker, but it’s worth it. And, as Hurn says, old BlackBerry users “miss their keyboard”.
Most importantly, BlackBerry appears to have lost the wilful superiority and corporate arrogance that blinded it to the unfolding disaster over the last few years that saw its market share and share price plummet. It will never regain the commanding heights it once held, but neither will Nokia nor Motorola, other previous behemoths that are now fallen giants who failed to innovate when the upstarts started eating their lunch.
BlackBerry’s powerful security is still a drawcard for the law enforcement and diplomatic corps that rely on its secure mobile email; and this niche set of users will surely be glad that their old faithful has a new lease on life.
Meanwhile, despite selling 1.4bn smartphones (a 14.4% increase over 2014, including 403m phones in Q4, which up 9.7%), global smartphones sales have seen the slowest growth rate since 2008, according to researchers Gartner.
Interestingly, behind Samsung (19.9% of global market share) and Apple (20.4%), the next three of the top five handsets makers are all Chinese: Huawei (5.7%), Lenovo (6.6% – which includes its new sub-brand Motorola) and Xiaomi (5.1%). The rest of the market holds 42.3%.
It’s also the first time that iPhone sales have declined, report Gartner, while the only manufacturers to increase their market share were South Korea’s Samsung and Huawei. Big-name manufacturers like Nokia, BlackBerry, Sony and LG don’t even figure in the top five anymore.
The Chinese smartphone makers – Xiaomi, Huawei, Hisense, Lenovo and others – are making good-enough handsets and are knocking on the doors of the established big players. The landscape of smartphone manufacturers is again in flux. Who knows what the top five will be this time next year?
This column first appeared on Financial Mail