AH TechTalk: How Should BlackBerry Polish Android?

BlackBerry is something of a fallen angel in smartphone circles. The Canadian manufacturer was once a market leader in smartphones and introduced a number of new features into the market, such as a smartphone that could connect with a push email account and still be going into the second day, but the company continued to use physical keyboards rather than adopt the becoming-fashionable switch to capacitive touchscreen technology. The business acquired QNX, which would become the platform for BlackBerry 10 (and the operating system present on the BlackBerry Playbook tablet) and has steadily been releasing new devices running the new software. Indeed, when BlackBerry 10 was released running on the BlackBerry Z10, this contained some of the better features of Android, iOS and Web OS put into a handset with very good signal and voice call clarity, but sadly underpowered in the battery department. And after years of speculation, now it appears that BlackBerry is taking another (serious) look at incorporating Android into one of its new up and coming slider devices.

There is a lot to like about BlackBerry's recent devices since the launch of the Z10. The older, JAVA-based operating system was built by engineers where every byte of data transferred came out of a budget and everything was about battery and data use. This is the complete opposite to the more modern smartphones, where the manufacturer provides the hardware and software leaving the customer and carrier would worry about keeping the battery topped up and the network capacity. Another BlackBerry focus is security, which here means end to end encryption and mobile device management abilities baked into the device. Over the years we have seen something of a convergence of these two approaches, but the rumors that BlackBerry is considering using Android on one of their devices may mean we will see a modified, or forked, version of Android released with enhanced power, data and security management built into the device.

The logical benefit to BlackBerry releasing an Android device is that it could demonstrate how effective their device management suite, BES 12, is at managing devices. Business customers expect BlackBerry's BES to handle BlackBerry devices well, but support for Android and iPhone devices is an important sell for the company. It may offer enterprise a smartphone that benefits from BlackBerry's input on the security and management side of things plus the Play Store's massive application collection and, crucially, developer support. As a case in point, some of the specialised software applications that I deal with are being developed for iOS and Android. BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone aren't getting a look in. Windows 10 might change this a little, but developers simply aren't building many specialized applications for BlackBerry 10. This is a trend that is not likely to change anytime soon.

Side benefits are that it could raise BlackBerry's image in consumer, prosumer, and professional circles, but a lot rests on the device(s) that BlackBerry releases. BlackBerry will not need to completely reinvent their wheel as their hardware is very similar to contemporary Android hardware. And yes, BlackBerry would need to support two platforms, but as Morningstar analyst Brian Colello said: "It certainly makes sense for BlackBerry's hardware business to experiment with Android. BlackBerry doesn't have much to lose. There's little downside and they just need one hit phone to justify the handset business."

What could a BlackBerry Android smartphone offer the market over and above what we have already seen? Their offering needs to be compelling in order to sell, which could mean a software feature, or a low price point combined with exceptional hardware. We might see the BlackBerry Hub implemented on the Android platform. We may even see a hardware keyboard, which may or may not include a slider chassis design as the original Reuters rumor suggested. And yes it needs BlackBerry software for device management and security. An approach similar to Motorola, whereby the core Android operating system is very similar to stock but contains some third party applications that may be updated using the Google Play Store, would be compelling. Conversely, if BlackBerry were to invest a lot of resources into reinventing the BlackBerry 10 look and feel over an Android operating system, much the same way that Amazon has reinvented Android as the foundation of the Fire OS on its Fire tablets and smartphone, this might be setting themselves up for a failure.

At this juncture, we need to wait for BlackBerry to provide us with a steer in one direction or another. It would be interesting to see how BlackBerry might evolve Android, incorporating security and perhaps even data management into the operating system, which if combined with the massive flexibility of Android's interface and hundreds of thousands of applications available over at the Google Play Store, could be a compelling device.

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