Thoughts on BlackBerry and the upcoming Priv

Priv-First-img

BlackBerry have announced the upcoming BlackBerry Priv, a new device that runs on a customised (but very close to the stock version of) Android. The Priv, in the slider form-factor is the spiritual successor to the much loved BlackBerry Torch 9800. It’s something BlackBerry fans have been calling for a return to for years now, and finally they will get what they want.

Switching to Android

I love my BlackBerry Z10. It’s an amazingly fast phone that handles messaging and notifications through e-mail, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and BBM better than any other mobile operating system out there, and it integrates cloud storage accounts as if it were local storage, but sadly the BlackBerry 10 operating system was not well adopted, and when 99.7% of smartphone purchaser are buying something else (yes, BB 10 adoption is down to 0.3% of the market), it’s not sustainable to continue down the current path. Although with the decline of BlackBerry’s handset business, they’ve been making quite a few company acquisitions in the mobile technology industry and have pivoted to being a platform independent Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) company.

Many BlackBerry users who use one as their daily driver, like myself, have a secondary iPhone or Android device, so they can still use apps, which are rarely released through anything other than the Apple App Store or Google Play. BlackBerry tried to fix this by integrating the Amazon App Store into later versions of BlackBerry 10, although it’s still a ghost town there, and workarounds such as sideloading Android apps onto BlackBerry is too much screwing around and only for the technically minded, and through Snap, which allows you to connect to the Google Play store, although with inconsistent results and is a poor substitute for native apps.

But with change comes opportunity – a new phone in a beloved form factor with full native access to the Google Play store and all the apps you could want. All the reports so far state that the Priv is a premium device, and it’s the most exciting development in Android phones this year.

What I want from the BlackBerry Priv

As the Priv has yet to be released, there are still some outstanding questions and speculation on the device, such as:

  • Will it have BlackBerry Blend? This is one of the top features of the BlackBerry 10 platform, and it would be disappointing if they can’t get it to work with Android. The ability to access and compose SMS, BBM, e-mail, and calendar from another device entirely, including your PC, iPad or Android device is really cool. If you’re in a lengthy text conversation with someone, it can be nice to just type it out on your PC rather than your phone.
  • Will it have ‘Peak and Flow‘? This method of navigating around BlackBerry 10 is the basis of the platform. It has a bit of a learning curve for iPhone users, but once you master using specific swipe gestures rather than button presses on your phone, you’ll find it much more efficient. I’m doubtful that this will port across to Android as it would be a significant modification from the stock version, and CEO John Chen, in a recent press demonstration of the Priv fell into the habit of swiping up on the phone, which had no effect on it (as it would on a BB 10 device).
  • Is the on-screen keyboard similar to that in BlackBerry 10? My Z10 always knows which word or words I want to type next and lets me swipe-up over it on the keyboard. It also learns which words you use, so my Z10 can swear like a sailor and never mistakenly suggests “ducking” as a word. Regular users of Android have a similar system, but it’s not nearly as good as in BlackBerry 10.
  • What security features will it have over stock Android? Is the unknown ‘DTEK‘ part of this? While BlackBerry has always offered secure e-mail and BBM for BlackBerry Enterprise Server users, it hasn’t really done much for individual (non-BES) users (outside of the general security of the operating system itself), and this hole has been filled on other platforms by others such as Blackphone, Wickr, Text Secure, Signal, Confide, and others. While BBM Protected offers secure messaging for enterprise customers, standard BBM is only considered ‘scrambled’ and not encrypted, with messages being turned over to law enforcement on request or court order, and BlackBerry having folded to foreign governments demanding they host BBM servers in their country so they can intercept messages passing through them (again, this does not apply to BES/BBM Protected, which do not use the same key that is shared amongst all non-BES users).

OMG, the name

The name of the BlackBerry Priv is just terrible. Apparently it is short for ‘privacy’ and ‘privilege’, as in the priviledge of having privacy. Clearly no one at BlackBerry ever Googled the term or checked Urban Dictionary, which defines it as follows:

Priv - Urban Dictionary

Priv – Urban Dictionary

Not since the Nintendo Wii has a product name been so off the mark. A lot of British people have commented that it reminds them of “privy”, which is their slang word for toilet or outhouse (also featured on Urban Dictionary). If you’re in Australia, the local equivalent would be if they called it the BlackBerry Dunny. There have also been many comments from people who are interested in the phone but are reconsidering because of the name.

How did they come up with such a terrible name? My theory is that BlackBerry CEO John Chen came up with the name and no one was brave enough to tell the boss what a bad idea it was. It’s almost the only explanation that makes sense. If I end up getting this phone, I think I’ll refer to it as the BlackBerry Venice, which was its development code name.

The BlackBerry Passport had such a cool name, one that perfectly described its form factor. It’s hard to believe they went from that straight to ‘Priv’.

Premium device, premium price?

BlackBerry have always had a good reputation in Hardware, and it’s great to hear that the Priv is no exception, but BlackBerry must be realistic – they don’t have their street cred of old, and they can’t price it the same as an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S6. To be a success, the Priv must be priced attractively. I will give a specific demerit to BlackBerry in Australia, which priced the BlackBerry Passport $300 OVER the cost of the device in the USA (and this was before the Australian Dollar tanked).

Do not do a carrier exclusive deal (especially not with different frequency band versions)

BlackBerry needs to get the Priv in as many hands as possible, and the carrier exclusive deal is antithesis of this. In Australia, BlackBerry have regularly done initial exclusivity periods with Optus, lasting over 3 months. When most business users (which seems to be BlackBerry’s key demographic) are on Australia’s largest telco, Telstra, it’s not even a good choice of telco to go with.

I’m reminded of the disaster this was with the BlackBerry Bold 9900, where there were 2 different hardware versions of the device in Australia, with each supporting different 3G frequency bands – one for Telstra and one for Optus. Meanwhile, the iPhone and major Android phones did not have this problem, and would work normally on either network (and also for Vodafone Australia). The same hardware problem was also there for a few other models. Never repeat this mistake again.

More SIM Card slots, please

BlackBerry have never released a phone with multiple SIM card slots. Neither has Apple, although there are some Android phones that have this capability (in differing levels of quality). For those wanting to keep work and personal calls all on the one device, this is the easiest way of doing things. Just add your work SIM to your personal phone and carry around one device only.

Late in 2014, BlackBerry acquired virtual SIM solutions company Movirtu, which does something similar, although is integrated into the telco’s networks to handle all this external to the device itself. BlackBerry should be telling us how they plan to integrate this into their vision of where their phones are headed. BlackBerry also have a tendency to integrate these features into a paid-for service, when it really needs to be something simple.

Apple and Samsung have reportedly made steps towards a new ‘ESIM’ standard, where rather than having a physical SIM card, you would load them electronically. Apparently you would be able to load multiple SIMs to the one device. This sounds quite similar to how CDMA phones worked in the USA (although without the multiples), where each telco had ungodly levels of control over your phone and made it difficult to switch carriers. The Europeans, through GSM had a much superior model of SIM cards that were easily transferred between devices, and it’s where America ended up with LTE (4G). Any return to such a model must not remove power from the end user and return it to a telco lock-in.

Which model will succeed in the near future? BlackBerry also needs to explain how Movirtu fits in with those who travel overseas and pick up a local SIM. This is where multiple SIM slot phones excel, where you can have both your usual (country of origin) SIM, used for receiving calls and SMS as per normal, and your foreign (but where you currently are located) SIM for data and making outgoing phone calls so as to minimise extortionate global roaming charges.

When can you get it?

BlackBerry look to have a phone that can finally break through in the market, and as long as they don’t misstep we’ll hopefully see a great new Android device with the pedigree of the Torch 9800, the killer features of BlackBerry 10 integrated, and the apps we’ve been missing. Rumours point to it being released in November 2015 (in the USA at least). Make it happen!

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