In mid-2012, during a media throng at a downtown Toronto hotel, Gary Klassen, the guy who invented BBM (and by now one of the company’s longest-lasting employees) gave MobileSyrup a rundown of the mobile operating system that would eventually be known as BlackBerry 10. It was in rough shape.
We were shown early versions of two important features, the Hub, and the virtual keyboard, that would go on to define the BB10 experience throughout its three-year life.
Released in January 2013 on the Z10, BlackBerry 10 arrived fully-formed and ready to take on the incumbents. But there were hints, even in its earliest, most hopeful days, that BlackBerry World wouldn’t attract the developer talent it needed to take on iOS and Android.
The company, which was committed to supporting its legacy BBOS customers for the then-foreseeable future, saw BlackBerry 10 as its future, and the future, of mobile computing, one where privacy, security, performance and a robust app ecosystem worked to disrupt Android and iOS.
Today, in order to save itself and its perilous hardware business, BlackBerry has been forced to disrupt itself, turning those aforementioned seminal features — the Hub, and the virtual keyboard — into apps that run on top of Android.
The move can be construed as BlackBerry giving up on its platform dream, one that began in earnest back in 2011 with the unveiling of the QNX-powered PlayBook tablet. At the time, HP’s acquisition of Palm and its webOS platform was relatively young, and with QNX’s pedigree of flexibility and power, it wasn’t beyond reason to believe that BlackBerry could pull off the impossible.
Three years later, with a leadership change at the top and myriad lessons learned, BlackBerry 10 is largely dead, a “post-support” operating system that promises security patches for now, and then a slow user base decline going forward.
Last week, BlackBerry’s senior director of product management in Asia Pacific, Damian Tay, confirmed the company’s transition plans to Android. “The PRIV device is essentially our transition to Android… The future is really Android. We went [there] essentially for its app ecosystem.” While the company plans to continue selling BlackBerry 10 devices like the Classic and Passport, it is largely to fulfil ongoing government contracts that demand the high security certification given to BB 10. Should the Priv and its successors ever earn such government trust, you can be sure the company will use its existing relationships to its advantage.
The transition to Android, which will likely continue at this year’s Mobile World Congress conference with the announcement of a new mid-range Android device, is good for BlackBerry in the long run.
According to TD analyst Daniel Chan, whose latest investor report puts for the first time in years a “buy” on BlackBerry shares, the company has four main drivers: growth in the software category, which is offsetting the decline of its service activation business; the eventual monetization of patents, which was rated the fifth most comprehensive among worldwide IT companies; exposure to the Internet of Things, which is growing in importance throughout the tech industry; and QNX, which currently sits in approximately 60 percent of car infotainment centres.
A notable omission? Smartphones. While Chan says that BlackBerry’s existing partnerships with Foxconn “de-risks” its handset business by removing troublesome inventory balancing and manufacturing costs, there is a “case [for] an Android operating system” as a central repository for the rest of BlackBerry’s intellectual property, according to Chan. As Samsung has shown with mixed results, Android’s openness affords phone makers a certain amount of freedom to push to their own software agenda, but it can also lead to confusion and frustration among users.
By focusing on security and privacy, a virtue synonymous with the company’s brand since its earliest days, BlackBerry has a chance to reverse, or at least stem, the downward trajectory of its handset business, which at 39 percent was still the highest-proportion category in the company’s suite of products, despite generating just $214 million on 700,000 devices last quarter.
The truth is that BlackBerry handsets earn a disproportionate amount of media attention for how many handsets the company sells. BlackBerry 10, like Windows Phone, Tizen, Firefox OS and any mobile operating system that isn’t iOS and Android, has no prospect of engaging the developer community central to success in the smartphone market. To succeed, it needs to build a powerful and long-lasting software layer on top of Android, one that emphasizes consumer services like BBM, and enterprise initiatives like BES 12 and Good Technology, its latest acquisition. Let Google control the app ecosystem and companies like Foxconn the manufacturing and distribution.
Hardware is hard. HTC knows it; Samsung knows it; Motorola knows it. Should BlackBerry choose to fully embrace Android and save itself the trouble of vertical integration, there are more than a few upsides, but the main one is that if the handset business doesn’t work out, the knots have already been sufficiently unloosened for a clean exit.