BlackBerry was left for dead a couple of years ago. Its share price had collapsed, its smartphone business was reeling from failed relaunches, and it looked ripe for the plucking by any of numerous tech giants.
Even when new CEO John Chen stripped the company to a lean, mean and focused core as a mobile security systems business, the future was never certain. The smartphone business was still contracting, and the BlackBerry 10 operating system became largely irrelevant.
Chen declared six months ago that BlackBerry would increasingly focus on its security solutions, and produce only one or two handsets a year. He put the company’s money where his mouth was by making a series of strategic acquisitions of software businesses.
So it has come as something of a shock to discover that BlackBerry has produced a smartphone that is possibly one of the best in the world today. It is even more of a shock to discover that it is an Android phone.
That alone is a clue to the new thinking at BlackBerry: corporate ego had kept it from embracing the touchscreen revolution after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007. It kept it from producing Android devices after it unveiled the first BlackBerry 10 phones in 2013 to a lukewarm reception. The decline of handset sales continued apace.
Marketing missteps, like failing to launch much-anticipated phones in key markets at the time the hype machine was exploding, and poor pricing strategy in developing countries, hurried the process along.
Which is another way of saying that, as good as the new Priv may be, it will live or die by marketing strategy.
And yes, it is very good.
The first thing that strikes one about the Priv, due in South Africa in the coming week from all networks, is the curved screen. It is the first mainstream handset in the world to follow Samsung’s example of curved edges: its S6 Edge and Edge+ allow for a side notification screen.
The purpose of the curve on the Priv is similar, but it is designed in such a way that, unlike the S6, the notification screen can’t be invoked accidentally while merely holding the phone. The user must swipe a finger across from the edge to bring up the notifications menu. The curve is also used in an aesthetically pleasing way to show charging status while the phone is in sleep mode.
“Along with Samsung, BlackBerry is the only vendor to have dual-curve edge technology in the marketplace,” said Gareth Hurn, BlackBerry’s director of global smartphone and software product management, during a visit to South Africa this week. “We’ve been conscious of designing the product where the emphasis is clearly on the design as opposed to only utility.”
The 5.4” Gorilla Glass 4 screen offers a sharp OLED display, with 2560 x 1440 Quad HD resolution. That would normally add up to swift battery drainage, but an intensive focus on power management – along with a healthy 3410mAh battery – promises 22,5 hours of mixed use.
The device can capture images in the new 4K format used by high-end TV sets, but will not display in the same format.
“We made the decision not to go with 4K display because the human eye would struggle to see the benefits on such a small screen, and it would result in a massive drain on the battery,” said Hurn.
There are a few other surprises. This phone marks BlackBerry’s long-overdue admission that the camera is a critical element of a smartphone in the second decade of the 21st century. It has fitted the device with an 18 megapixel rear-facing camera, described by Hunt as “the best camera BlackBerry has ever done, on a par with the latest from Samsung”.
It includes a dual flash and a range of professional features, like optical image stabilisation and live filters. A slightly raised stainless steel surround on the lens means it won’t be scratched while lying flat. A front-facing 2MP camera includes a panoramic selfie mode, which allows a series of photos to be blended together.
The manner in which it has enhanced Android with some of the standout features of BB 10 is also a pleasant surprise. Referring to it as “Android amplified”, BlackBerry has built in the unified inbox concept called BlackBerry Hub, as well as a “Pop-up Widget” feature which allows for more widgets to be displayed more compactly. Aside from these elements, the Android experience has been kept relatively free of bloatware.
The old fan-favourite, the BlackBerry red “splat” notification, is back, both in the Hub and on the home screen, but can be toned down for the notification-weary.
The biggest surprise of all – at least if no one warned you – is that, while it has the form factor of a typical phablet, the Priv has a slideout keyboard. It comes as a shock primarily because the 9.4mm thickness of the device does not hint at an additional component waiting to slide out. On the other hand, it contributes significantly to the 192g weight of the device.
Anyone who ever fell in love with the old BlackBerry Torch will feel compelled to try it out. Anyone who misses the physical QWERTY keyboard that once defined BlackBerry phones will be delighted with its responsiveness. Although the number keys share space with letters, the keyboard as a whole acts as a trackpad, with scrolling and cursor control across the keyboard. It also includes the standout feature of the original BlackBerry 10 phones, namely the ability to flick words up from a devilishly accurate predictive text layer above each of the four rows of keys.
The keys can be assigned shortcuts, so that holding down the “I”, for example, will open Instagram. Yes, thanks to Android, the Priv addresses this key gap in previous BlackBerry handsets.
Oh yes, the regular touchscreen also features a superb virtual keyboard that takes up the lower third of the screen when in use. In other words, you can have your cake or slide it.
There is more, such as the market-leading privacy and security features that give the phone is name, and a soft “tensile knit” coating on the back that gives the phone a comfortable, non-slip feel. An easy snooze function for reminders to respond to calls, messages or emails – customizable based on time, location or form of connectivity – is an example of a thoughtful approach to communications
The combined package makes it one of the best Android phones on the market – if it can reach the right market at the right time.
Will it bring old-time users back? Only if BlackBerry can get it into their hands at every possible moment when they are considering a new phone.