Manufacturer defiant over future in hardware one year on from aborted £3 billion sell-off
BlackBerry insists there is absolutely no chance of it exiting the smartphone market – after unveiling its first device in almost a year, the BlackBerry Passport.
The Canadian manufacturer has endured a catastrophic fall in recent years, in which its market share has plummeted from 21 per cent to less than one percent in less than five years.
Question marks over its future have never been far from the headlines. Just a year ago, following the news of its proposed £3 billion sale to Fairfax, many in the industry predicted its days in hardware – which accounted for 46 per cent of its second-quarter revenues (£258 million) – were numbered.
Speaking at the BlackBerry Passport launch in London on September 24, chief operating officer Marty Beard, who joined in July, told the 500-plus audience this had simply never been the case and the firm is now back in the ascendency.
“One thing I have found since I joined is that people misquote BlackBerry, saying we are getting out of the phone business. This is simply not the case. We began rolling out the Z3 smartphone in May across 17 countries, we now have the BlackBerry Passport and, in the future, the Classic.
“I can confirm that BlackBerry is not dropping the phone business. Quite the contrary. We are putting huge innovation into a series of unique and very powerful devices. That success will carry us forward.
“On the strategy front, it is my belief our devices can make money, because we have significantly improved our supply-chain efficiency – such as partnering with Foxconn – which is really the underpinning of our phone business, and we have continued massive innovations in our products.”
The first examples of these “innovations” are present on the new Passport device, which breaks away from traditional smartphone form factors – most notably a square 4.5-inch touchscreen and three-row, physical keyboard.
According to Beard, the device is designed specifically for the “mobile professional” and built predominantly on feedback from its 80,000-plus enterprise customers globally.
Beard reeled off figures suggesting that a “mobile professional” – someone who uses their phone 50 per cent of the time for work – represents a “huge” 30 per cent of the total market: 290 million out of 968 million.
“We designed the BlackBerry Passport for the mobile professional and spent a tremendous amount of time and attention studying that space and our BlackBerry user base.
“We know this space better than any other in the world, and we know this market is underserved today. The strategy of our turnaround is based on what we know and what mobile professionals demand the most. This is productivity, security, which is becoming more and more important, communication and collaboration.”
Discussing the features of the new Passport, BlackBerry product manager Michael Clewley (pictured main) described the handset (pictured right) as a “completely new” BlackBerry device, both inside and out.
He touched on standard features on the handset, including a 13-megapixel camera (its biggest yet), 4G/LTE connectivity, a quad core 2.2GHz processor and 32GB internal memory (expandable by 64GB) plus a 30-hour battery.
He claims there have also been “hundreds” of updates to the design and features of its BB10 operating system, launched 18 months ago, now BB10.3.
These include the launch of BlackBerry Blend, a new app which enables users to securely access content from their BlackBerry smartphone on a tablet or PC.
Users can receive notifications, respond to work and personal messages, and access documents, calendars, contacts and media on any device, regardless of the operating system.
It works across desktop operating systems including Mac OS X 10.7+, iPad tablets running iOS 7+, Windows 7+ and Android tablets running Android 4.4+.
The downloadable version of Blend for Macs and PCs is available at www.BlackBerry.com/Blend, on the Apple App Store for tablets, or via the Google Play Store for Android tablets.
BlackBerry has also launched its answer to Siri and Google Now with its voice-controlled personal assistant BlackBerry Assistant, which the company said can be used to help users manage work and personal email, contacts, calendar and other native BlackBerry 10 applications.
However, the biggest talking points unsurprisingly centred around the design – particularly the decision to include a 4.5-inch square screen – almost two inches wider than the iPhone 6 screen.
According to Clewley, the square design “fundamentally improves” the user experience for a typical business user when set against its rivals – particularly compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and Apple’s iPhone 6.
He highlighted the number of characters able to be displayed across each line on the Passport – 60, just three fewer than the industry standard for an e-reader.
In comparison, the iPhone 6 allows for 33 characters per line whilst the Samsung Galaxy S5 offers just 29.
He claims users of smaller-screened devices are less productive when away from their desktop due to the need to zoom in and manoeuvre around the screen, a problem the Passport removes.
“We have seen displays get a little bit bigger and a little bit brighter, and a little sharper. No display has really tried to fundamentally improve the viewing experience for reading content like emails, browsing content and for navigation. Today, professionals are doing their best to work on narrow screens and often leave many tasks to do on their desktop computers.”
Another clear design update is to the BlackBerry keyboard (see image comparison below).
According to Clewley, BlackBerry has reinvented the typing experience on a smartphone by combining touch with physical, dubbed “touch -enabled keyboard”.
He claims tests have proven (although exact details were not discussed) the inclusion of the physical QWERTY keyboard mixed with the touch screen, for grammar, predictive, etc, improves accuracy by around 74 per cent when compared to just touch screens.
The keyboard also doubles-up as a touch sensitive “track-pad”, which enables users to navigate around the screen without the physical need to touch the glass. The manufacturer was heavily criticised for this feature being absent on the Q10.
Crewley said no other manufacturer comes close.
“BlackBerry is regarded and even imitated for its physical keyboard,” he said. “Mobile professionals love the BlackBerry keyboard for its speed and accuracy and how it allows them to communicate in confidence without errors.
“With the BlackBerry Passport we wanted to reinvent the BlackBerry keyboard and build on our heritage and strengths whilst doing something incredibly new and innovative. We have invented a new typing experience which blends the physical accuracy with the flexibility and fluidity of touch.
“The keyboard will allow mobile professionals to experience greater precision and efficiency whilst navigating and typing on their smartphone.”
BlackBerry has also “worked hard” on boosting its audio performance when making and receiving a call – a feature that it claims remains the most important sales decision driver for customers.
Crewley believes whilst technology in smartphones has “advanced” significantly, little has been done to improve the sound quality for calls, and claims the inclusion of “innovative” technologies in the Passport’s microphones and speakers makes it the loudest and clearest smartphone on the market; around 18 per cent louder than the HTC One (M8) and 350 per cent louder than the Galaxy S5.
“With all the advancements in smartphone technology, there have been few made in improving audio quality issues,” Clewley said. “BlackBerry Passport delivers an amazing audio experience.
“Volume doesn’t come at the expense of clarity. It offers better frequency response more than ever before. Your conference calls will sound as if you’re in the same room as the other person.
“It’s a great alternative to your desk-phone. If you are in a noisy environment, it will automatically adjust to compensate that. It gives you consistently the right experience.”
Full article in Mobile News issue 574 (October 6, 2014).
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