It’s been a long time since we’ve written much about BlackBerry, the onetime industry titan that now mostly serves as a cautionary tale. While the company has attempted to remain relevant and develop its own BB10 OS and accompanying phone platforms, sales of these devices have been anemic. It was big news earlier this month, when BlackBerry confirmed that its first Android phone, dubbed the Priv, would launch this year. Now, CEO John Chen has stated that if the Priv doesn’t propel the hardware department back to profitability, BlackBerry may be done with the segment altogether.
Speaking at the Code/Mobile conference, Chen indicated that he might pivot BlackBerry to focus entirely on providing security software to other mobile and server platforms. Chen still wants the Priv to find a following, since hardware design has been part of BlackBerry from its inception, but he’s not betting the entire farm on this single product. Engadget reports that the name “Priv” isn’t an old-fashioned word for toilet, but rather stands for “Privacy” and “Privilege.”It’s meant to give BlackBerry an Android platform to branch out from, solve the company’s ongoing app shortage, and leverage BlackBerry’s historic strengths in security.
Leaked specs on the Priv point to a solid device — rumored specifications include a 2560×1440 screen, 32GB of internal storage with a microSD slot for up to 128GB of additional space, 3GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 808, and a 5.4-inch screen. The hardware slider keyboard slips down vertically, not horizontally, but if the device lives up to its specifications and the hardware keyboard maintains BlackBerry’s high standards in that realm, the Priv could definitely sell in quantity. Once the platform is based on Android, users who have wanted hardware keyboards and have seen high-end device manufacturers largely abandon them could move over to the Priv.
The big question is whether BlackBerry can ever offer the same security on Android as it historically did through its own operating system. Making that work is going to require that the company be far more proactive about security updates than Samsung or HTC has ever been. It’s also going to mean taking an active hand in Android code review, possibly working to lock down bugs and security problems before they even make it out to the wider Android ecosystem.
The recent Stagefright bugs and other Android exploits could make it impossible for BlackBerry to offer anything like its old security model, which Chen alluded to in his talk. While he acknowledged the limits to BlackBerrys’ ability to lock down Android, Chen believes “We’ll be more resilient than everybody else.” The Priv will prove or disprove that claim when it becomes available later this year, at a price Chen says will be comparable to other high-end smartphones.
If Priv catches on, it could be the first in a new family of BlackBerry devices. If it fails, we expect BlackBerry will kill its hardware division. The company has launched a number of devices since it introduced BB10, but none have stemmed the loss of subscribers or materially reversed its fading market share.