Slapping a keyboard on an Android device isn't enough, BlackBerry needs to do more to stay relevant

We’re a very possessive people when it comes to our smartphones and myriad gadgets. A phone is an integral part of our lives. It’s an extension of our persona. Even at a subliminal level, our choice of phone, the layout of the home screen, choice of case are a representation of us.

BlackBerry. Reuters

BlackBerry. Reuters

There’s a community around these devices as well; you know an Apple guy or an Android guy when you see one. Companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus are making their living off these communities and they’re an integral part of mobile culture.

Few companies have transcended that gulf that separates your run-of-the-mill device maker to a brand that inspires emotion. Apple, Nokia and BlackBerry are among the few brands that have done so.

BlackBerry and Nokia, yesteryear’s heroes, lost their communities when they failed to innovate in time to meet the challenge presented to them by the coming of the iPhone and the rise of Android.

Both brands still inspire emotion in a lot of people, but those people will now be proper adults, with some nearing their sixties.

Roots are important

Nokia is attempting to rebuild itself by heading back to its roots. For me, the defining factors of a Nokia phone were its ruggedness and dependability. I was always confident in my phone, that it would last me a week on a single charge and that it wouldn’t fall apart at the slightest touch, that I could type without looking at the keyboard. The Nokias of today seem the same.

For users of the original BlackBerry devices, I’m sure the story was very similar. After all, it was in the early 2000s that the company hit its peak, a time before the iPhone took over the world and when Android was still in its infancy.

Speak to a BlackBerry user about their previous devices and they’ll go all nostalgic about emails that came the instant they were sent (push mail), a red connectivity light that never died, BlackBerry Messenger and of course, that fantastic keyboard.

The thing is, BlackBerry had a laser focus when it was building its devices in 2010. As with Nokia, buying a BlackBerry device assured you of three things: Unmatched email access, an unmatched messaging experience and unmatched security. These are not the hallmarks of a BlackBerry device today.

Nokia is making a comeback precisely because the brand, at its core, hasn’t changed. The devices we’ve seen from the company aren’t cheap knock-offs with Nokia branding, they’re well-built devices infused with the company’s original ethos.

What is BlackBerry?

Coming back to BlackBerry, the original three defining characteristics of the brand aren’t present in any of the devices today.

While most Blackberry addicts (CrackBerries?) will wax lyrical on the benefits of BBM, the QWERTY keyboard and the Hub, it’s more important to remember that these are just features that were appropriate for their time.

A BlackBerry device was the definitive device to own in early 2010. Reuters

A BlackBerry device was the definitive device to own in early 2010. Reuters

BBM is no longer unique nor the gold standard for messaging apps. Apple’s Messages, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and a hundred other apps perform the same function today. Yes, BlackBerry’s enterprise clients may beg to differ, but that’s a niche audience with deep pockets and a very specific set of requirements.

The Hub was useful in 2010, but with no developer interest or proper app integration, its current avatar is worse than Android’s Notification Centre. You can’t respond in-line, for example.

The same goes for email and typing. The former is now ubiquitous and push mail is normal, the latter was introduced a time when touchscreen keyboards weren’t good enough.

I’m not saying that a physical keyboard is bad, by the way, all I’m saying is that current software keyboards are so good, that few will miss a physical keyboard. Most of those who do miss it will likely be grandparents by now.

The BlackBerry experience was never about the keyboard

Start polishing your pitchforks if you like, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that the “BlackBerry experience” was never about the keyboard, or the hub, or BBM, or any other feature of the pre-QNX phones.

Full disclosure: Yours truly has never owned an old a pre-QNX BlackBerry, but has spent his childhood with people who’ve sworn by BlackBerry and would build a shrine to the company if they could.

Obama had to fight the CIA for the right to use his BlackBerry when he took office in 2007. Reuters

Obama had to fight the CIA for the right to use his BlackBerry when he took office in 2007. Reuters

I believe that the BlackBerry experience was defined by the ease with which we could perform certain tasks. Intelligent design. In the early 2000s, no other device in the market offered better email, messaging, typing or connectivity capabilities. The entire device was built around enabling this experience. The keyboard, Hub and BBM were simply a by-product of this aim.

Somewhere down the road, BlackBerry forgot what it was about, the guiding principles of the company, if you will.

In 2017, BlackBerry is simply offering an Android phone with a physical keyboard. The device hasn’t revolutionised the way we work; it simply exists in name. There’s nothing innovative or revolutionary about the device. The latest KEYone is not going to trigger nostalgia in anyone.

Sure, the new phones have a hub, BBM and a keyboard, but these are no longer the best way to interact with your phone.

The keyboard, for example, is touch-sensitive, which is interesting, but the feature isn’t well integrated and I’d describe the experience as janky at best. Why can’t you move the cursor with the keyboard, say? Isn’t a BlackBerry device all about elevating the typing experience?

On Android, Gmail is a better email client, WhatsApp is arguably a better messaging service (though not necessarily a more secure one) and the Android Notification Centre is already a better hub.

Why would anyone want a BlackBerry smartphone in 2017?

Where’s the innovation, that drive to create something special? How do these Android-based BlackBerry’s make you more productive?

One can understand BlackBerry’s predicament, but it was its own complacency that landed it where it did. The world has changed and the company was too slow to innovate.

Even though BlackBerry did make a valiant effort to return to relevance with BB10, an OS without apps, no matter how good, is doomed to fail. Despite that, I still think that BlackBerry should have persisted, it was the company's last passion project, after all.

BlackBerry should just stop making devices until it can make up its mind to try harder.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 17:16 PM