It seems hard to understand what is currently going on with BlackBerry. Although to be fair, many will say that has long been the case with BlackBerry as they have been a company that until recently stuck to their guns relentlessly and continued on pushing their own operating system, in spite of sales figures and adoption rates making it clear that the rest of the world had moved on. But BlackBerry did move on and really well. After mountings of speculation, BlackBerry did finally confirm that they were going to release a handset which solely ran on the Android operating system. A move which although many saw as an admission of the failings of their own OS, was a move which was significantly long overdue. Nevertheless, they did announce an Android smartphone and towards the close of the year, they did release it. Enter, the BlackBerry PRIV.
Like a dream smartphone, the PRIV arrived with a bang and instantly brought with it the hardware look and feel of a classic BlackBerry smartphone but one which was powered underneath by the might of Android. A match made in heaven. Sure, there were teething problems at first, but if anyone expected a company to release a smartphone on a new operating system without some issues, they were not thinking straight. While the price was high for the PRIV, as a debut Android smartphone, you could do far worse. More to the point, for those who like the BlackBerry style, this was a great way to give them the hardware they wanted and with an operating system they needed.
After release, it seemed as though the PRIV was doing fine. Sales were not fantastic and it was not making the impact that the latest smartphone from Samsung would do, but again, it could not have been expected by the market (or by BlackBerry) that the PRIV was gonna shatter records. In reality and again, for a debut Android device, it seemed to be selling well. At least that is the impression we have been giving and it certainly must be a better indication of what they could achieve compared to sticking further with their own platform, which keeps sliding in adoption.
But here is where things are starting to get complicated. BlackBerry has released an Android smartphone now. The move is done and the initial “will they, won’t they” is over with. So it is time that BlackBerry gets a bit more realistic and keeps the market, consumers and everyone in the know about their plans. For instance, even before BlackBerry introduced the PRIV, there were already rumors floating about a possible follow-up device, the BlackBerry Vienna. This was supposed to be more of a mid-range or at least, more affordable BlackBerry Android smartphone and that line of thinking made sense. If you have one smartphone and it is expensive then release a second one at a cheaper price. Then everyone is happy. But since those initial rumors, pretty much nothing has happened. There are very few Vienna rumors coming through now and most people seem to think that they are not going to come through. A sentiment which made the headlines earlier this week when an analyst from TD Securities was noted drawing the conclusion that there is a good chance that not only will there be no Vienna handset from BlackBerry, but there might not be any handset from BlackBerry ever again. The suggestion being that the company is preparing to announce that they will abandon the hardware market completely and opt to focus on the software side of things instead. One particular reason for this thinking is that there was no announcement from BlackBerry at MWC this year. And looking back, is a very good point.
At the time, very few thought that BlackBerry would announce anything at MWC, as there was literally nothing coming down the wire. No leaks, no images, no rumors, nada. However, when you think about the year ahead, MWC was the time to announce Vienna. Just like the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 and pretty much any other smartphone, there is a time delay between announcing and product availability. So announcing at MWC would still have left BlackBerry ample time to do whatever else needed to be done and would have at the very least, started the ball rolling on a world stage which was eagerly waiting for such an announcement. In contrast, with each month that now passes, they are pushing back to a later delivery date. And while that might seem fine, here is the bigger issue. If they wait too long, the delivery of their second phone will come at the time when an upgrade to the PRIV would be expected. And it stands to reason that they cannot release a mid-range smartphone as a direct year-on follow up to a flagship smartphone. More to the point, if they did do this, then that means there is no follow up to the PRIV, no major flagship smartphone from BlackBerry in 2016. Unless you believe a very superficial rumor which came through this week.
This rumor actually materialized on the internet almost a week ago and has gained next to no coverage – which presumably is an indication of the lack of belief in the rumor or evidence to support it. However, the rumor states that BlackBerry will not release the Vienna smartphone and instead are planning to release two other handsets this year, codenamed Hamburg and Rome. In the most basic of ways, Hamburg is Vienna, as it is said to be a mid-range Android smartphone. Although, that is where the similarities end as Hamburg is said to only be sporting a touchscreen – no BlackBerry physical keyboard, when most of the early leaked images of Vienna did suggest a keyboard.
In contrast, Rome is said to be more of a flagship smartphone and one which will come sporting the physical keyboard again. Essentially, a second generation PRIV, albeit, it could look and be very different. From the logical point of view, although there is little to confirm the ‘Hamburg and Rome’ rumor, it does seem to be the best course of action for BlackBerry. By the end of this year, we will be in the second cycle year of the BlackBerry/Android era and it would be an ideal time-span to have released two more smartphones. An initial interim affordable option and then a second generation flagship. All within about 18 months. This would not only confirm their presence in the Android market but will also help to build momentum.
But this does not look to be the case. The only information is this one rumor and there seems to be no further evidence to support that BlackBerry is going to release any handset, let alone two before the year is out. As already mentioned, some are starting to think that BlackBerry is planning on exiting the hardware business altogether. There are numerous reports coming through on a weekly basis of how they seem to be diluting their own OS, which under normal circumstances would be an indication they were planning to focus more on Android, But there is no evidence to suggest that is the case either and to make matters worse, BlackBerry seem to be too tight-lipped about the whole thing.
If you remember back, the decision on whether BlackBerry would release another smartphone on Android rested solely on the performance of the PRIV. BlackBerry made it clear that if sales were not good enough, then they would not make another smartphone. In the real world, that is a rather fickle way to enter a market – essentially making it clear that if customers don’t buy enough (what BlackBerry views as ‘enough’ that is), then they won’t make any more. The cold reality of the Android world (and the wider mobile world) is that if you make a good product, it will sell. If it is not a good product (it still might sell) but it also might not. So if the PRIV does not sell enough to justify to BlackBerry, chances are good that it is because it was not a very good smartphone to begin with. And either way, the second device is where a new OEM would be expected to make an even bigger impact – by building on what they learned from the first device and making an even better smartphone. One which sells more. It is a bit self-indulgent to say ‘buy our smartphone or we won’t make anymore’, although that does seem to be exactly the case with BlackBerry so far.
Which would be a massive shame. At a time when security is literally in the news on a daily basis, BlackBerry does have a USP waiting for them to take advantage of. Most new-to-Android OEMs have to convince the market of its USP and that is not the case with BlackBerry. They are already known for their emphasis on security and the PRIV has followed that path with generally speaking, very fast patches and a clear focus on security. The time in right for a company like BlackBerry to cement their position in the Android market. But to do that, they need to release smartphones. Not because everyone loved and bought the PRIV, but because they can fill an anxious security-driven and paranoid void that is starting to establish itself in the mobile world. Now is the time for BlackBerry to strike while the iron is most definitely hot…. But again, to do that they need to release something and not only release it, but announce it and sooner rather than later to allow for the usual hype and excitement to build. It is not much good announcing on the quiet and then making available the next day or week through their site or as an AT&T exclusive. That is not the way to sell phones. BlackBerry needs to announce big and make it count. But with the severe lack of rumors coming through, that does not look likely to be happening and this hesitation is going to only make matters worse. It is time for them to commit to Android or commit to not making another Android smartphone.