Arthur Goldstuck: How BlackBerry is refusing to die
It looked like the writing on the wall for BlackBerry.
Never mind slow sales of new devices. An apparent death warrant was signed by Facebook, when it announced earlier this year that it would end WhatsApp support for phones using the BlackBerry Operating System (BBOS) on older devices like the Curve, as well as on newer ones running on the BlackBerry 10 OS.
BlackBerry still has a massive user base in South Africa, with more than three million devices in use. But WhatsApp is used by well over 14 million South Africans, becoming the standard instant messaging app for the nation.
It has completely eclipsed BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), which was the app that initiated the demise of the home grown messaging app Mxit.
In the same way that BBM heralded the death of Mxit, the WhatsApp announcement seemed to do the same for BlackBerry phones.
Coincidentally, shortly before the announcement, BlackBerry had launched its first Android phone, the PRIV. It was positioned as the ultimate phone for security and privacy, aside from sporting a classic BlackBerry slide-out physical keyboard. While this was a compelling message for some corporate and government users, it didn’t seem to reach consumers.
BlackBerry continued bleeding money from its handset division.
And it appeared to have joined WhatsApp in abandoning its own operating systems.
Suddenly, however, it is fighting back. In response to our enquiry this week, BlackBerry chief operating officer Marty Beard was unequivocal:
“While the app landscape continues to evolve, our commitment to BlackBerry10 and our developers is unwavering. We are actively exploring alternatives for BlackBerry users once support of WhatsApp Messenger for BBOS and BlackBerry 10 ends in late 2016. Users of BlackBerry PRIV, which runs on Android, will not be impacted.”
This suggests that BlackBerry is not attempting to convince Facebook to change its mind, but rather that it is seeking a workaround. This could come in the form of a dedicated platform that “pretends” to be Android but loads WhatsApp and other apps onto the BBOS or BB 10.
Beard didn’t comment on the specific mechanism, but made it clear that BB 10 in particular would not be abandoned.
“BlackBerry is committed to our BlackBerry 10 operating system, and we work closely with developers to create and deploy solutions to bring apps to our consumer and enterprise fans. We continue to invest in the BlackBerry 10 platform and will introduce several key security updates this year.”
The open secret of BlackBerry is that it produces not only the most secure mainstream phones in the world, but also boasts the most heavyweight security software on a phone. Its core business nowadays revolves around mobile security, and it provides the most reliable mobile device management systems for businesses to manage how employees connect their own devices to a company network.
BlackBerry also presides over QNX, regarded as the most secure automotive operating system available. The latest version of Ford’s market-leading infotainment system, SYNC 3, runs on QNX. Now BlackBerry wants to remind the world that it can do the same for phones.
Says Beard: “For the most secure messaging platform, consumers can use BBM on BlackBerry OS or BlackBerry 10 and securely communicate and share images and videos with others around the world – even with users on iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile devices.”
Last week Beard revealed some of the company’s plans for the coming year, insisting that it would “keep advancing our smartphone portfolio”.
“You’ll see that with the next 10.3.3 update coming within the next month, which will be focused on enhancing our already-stellar privacy and security features. Future BB10 software updates for 2017 are already in the works.”
He pointed out that customers still ask for a choice in both a virtual and physical keyboard.
“This means we’ll continue to make our iconic BlackBerry keyboard. We have four physical keyboard options: Passport, Passport Silver Edition, Classic and PRIV. There is solid demand for physical keyboards – and as long as that’s the case, we’ll continue to make them.”
BlackBerry’s device strategy, he said, was differentiated because it went beyond just smartphones. Especially as the rapidly growing mobile environment is pulled into the connected devices world of the Internet of Things, both strong security and strong connectivity will be essential.
“The foundation for this started with the BB10 software platform, which was built by engineers with decades of experience in security. But we knew there was a need to bridge the connectivity gap – leveraging Android was the solution. But, we didn’t just want to create another prosaic Android device.
“We wanted to merge the best of BlackBerry with Android – the notion of a new merged BlackBerry platform meant we would provide the security and connectivity BlackBerry is known for with the content available in the Android ecosystem – all in one environment.”
That strategy is likely to guide the resurrection of WhatsApp on BlackBerry. But it also holds the promise of more handsets combining Android with BlackBerry security.
“BlackBerry is the only one with this unique flavor of smartphone in the market today,” Beard claimed. “PRIV was the first iteration… and soon there will be others.”