Is BlackBerry getting out of a Jam?

18th Feb 2013 | 16:16

Is BlackBerry getting out of a Jam?

Is this enough to save the ailing Canadian firm?

BB10 - signs of early success?

Did the BlackBerry Z10 launch fall a bit flat? Not from where BlackBerry is sitting. "The feedback has been incredible," UK MD Rob Orr told us at the BlackBerry Jam developer event.

"And that's feedback right across the market, from developers to enterprise customers to walk-in buyers to the senior management in the mobile networks and the retailers, down to the Saturday store staff."

BlackBerry doesn't release sales figures itself; that's up to the retailers such as Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U, or to market researchers GfK, but the stories about people walking into London stores such as Selfridges and buying 10 BlackBerry devices at a time? "There's been a lot of that," he claims. "And that's before we started the advertising…"

Want to sell a lot of phones? You need the mobile networks behind you - from the staff in phone shops who get asked for advice to the executives who decide on tariffs, special offers and which phones to put in their adverts.

The networks do a good job of sounding excited about all the new handsets that come along, but what's impressive is that BlackBerry can produce senior figures at every UK phone network who seem to actually understand the new features in BlackBerry 10.

Equally on side are the technical teams who test phones before they're allowed on the network. Testing can hold up your phone; look at how long it takes operators to approve new updates for Windows Phone. That makes it more impressive that some of them worked through Christmas to get BlackBerry Z10 handsets approved so they could go on sale quickly after launch.

Rob Orr

Because BlackBerry didn't want to wait for Mobile World Congress 2013, with its flood of announcements and launches, timing was tight to find and fix any issues and get phones in boxes and on the shelves.

Instead of dragging their feet, the networks pitched in. "Over Christmas they had warehouses opening, labs opening," Orr told TechRadar. "The kit was coming through and we had testing taking place between Christmas and the New Year break to get us to the launch date - and that's quite rare. It's quite a rare thing for them to come out and say 'this is different, this is special and we are behind it'."

Why so helpful? "We're an important part of their business today. We're comfortably the third place platform in the UK market - and this helps me solidify that position and ultimately start to make inroads and grow it from where we are today."

BlackBerry and the competition

Where BlackBerry is today is, of course, behind iPhone and Android. We asked European MD STephen Bates: What has BlackBerry learned from the success of other devices?

"The difference between us and others is the choice we took - which was a hard choice. To develop a completely new platform has given us the ability to create a different user experience," he admitted.

"That's something that you cannot get if you were to OEM it from a third party. What the competition has done is setting this concept of an app grid. That's a great user experience and what we've done is taken that and moved it on to have a fresher, smoother, more integrated feel.

Stephen Bates

"It's about the flow, the gestures. With up to eight apps open and with your social networks in the hub, if you add it up you've probably got 15-16 things and the ability to flow across them and keep the context of what you're doing. That's a unique experience."

Bates is happy to admit that BlackBerry has learned lessons. "We haven't been perfect. We've learned a lot in the last two years and we've tried to take those learnings and build a new better BlackBerry.

"We've used this time to spend a lot of time talking to customers about what is the essence of BlackBerry; what do you like, what you do not like? For BlackBerry 10 we wanted to keep the essence of what BlackBerry is about and deal with the disqualifiers."

The essence of BlackBerry isn't just the keyboard or BBM, important as those are. "To me fundamentally it's a communications device where we deliver a capability to people who naturally multitask, who want to get lots of things done," added Bates.

We can flow across these worlds and enable you to interact with all the networks you want to connect with, be it Facebook, Twitter, BBM, Foursquare, Whatsapp, Skype - we don't care. Whatever your flavour of communications is, we want to deliver unique fast experiences, and that's what the hub is all about."

Plus there was dealing with the places BlackBerry was behind; Bates calls those table stakes, things BlackBerry just had to get right.

"We solved the classic reasons why people don't stay with BlackBerry; the browser, the apps, multimedia. We've now got probably the best browser. We've got a very competitive app market. Multimedia; the screen is simply beautiful."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course; if you were hoping for dedicated apps, having iPlayer and YouTube open in the browser may be a surprise, but it is a browser that plays Flash and gets a higher score for HTML5 compatibility than the desktop versions of Chrome and Firefox.

BlackBerry Z10

(Sneakily, the browser has a new user agent, which means a site that's sending older BlackBerry users to a mobile version will give BB10 users the full desktop site because it won't recognise the agent.)

The 4.2-inch screen is larger than the iPhone 5's screen, and the 1280 x 760 resolution beats it and matches the Google Nexus 4 and Nokia Lumia 920. The pixel density is lower than the iPhone's retina display, but videos look more than acceptable and you have the HDMI out to push movies to a larger screen at 1080p as well.

Certainly, this is a world away from the low resolution screen and clunky video player in BB7, especially when you look at apps such as Nobex, which now plays video podcasts as well as internet radio stations.

And yes, it did take a push from other handset makers to get here. Or as Bates puts it with a more positive spin; "the consumer wins in all this because we've moved on; we've brought something fresh, we've brought something new. It's a great demonstration of the power of that competitive market."

The keyboard is coming

Around April the BlackBerry Q10 goes on sale. Why bring out a touchscreen phone first when BlackBerry is known for its physical keyboard?

Orr says this isn't just BlackBerry hedging its bets. "The reason we launched the touchscreen device first is because the BB10 platform was built as a gesture-based touch interface. We have gestures for peek and flow and the way we reinvented the experience is best showcased in a purely touch environment.

"But we built the keyboard phone because the BlackBerry base is very loyal to that tactile physical interface."

It also gives BlackBerry more time to get the right content. Some big name apps are ready (Facebook, Twitter, TuneIn and Angry Birds) with others "committed" to BlackBerry 10 but not launched yet (Skype, Kindle and Whatsapp), and BlackBerry "in talks" about getting Netflix and Instagram too.

BB Keyboard

It's disappointing that big names are waiting until BlackBerry has more users to finish delivering their apps (and there's no sign of Spotify, which just came out in beta for Windows Phone 8).

"We're going out and making sure we have specific apps and services that matter for this market, that we have the movies and music and content and shows that people want. So we have the BBC back catalogue and the ITV back catalogue in BlackBerry World," Orr points out when speaking on the benefits of BB10 in the UK.

"Things like having the tube map is important. BBC iPlayer is available on the device; that's important for the UK. New things will pop out and we need to jump on them."

It's interesting to note that BlackBerry World isn't filled with ported Android apps; those make up only 15% of the 70,000 apps at launch, and over half are native apps built in BlackBerry's own hardware-accelerated Cascades framework.

Orr echoed CEO Thorsten Heins, who called the launch the starting line rather than the finish line (which is especially true in the US, where the BlackBerry Z10 isn't available yet. "This is the start of the next 10 years of our evolution. There will be lots of exciting innovations and improvements along the way."

The first of those comes on the BlackBerry Q10 as a new feature called Type and Go. If you just start typing when you're not in an app, the BlackBerry will treat it as a command. Type 'email Paul' or 'BBM Dan' and that's what you'll find yourself doing.

Developers will be able to add these hotkeys to trigger their own apps, so you could start typing to open your favourite internet radio station or iPlayer channel. And yes, you'll be able to do that on the touch keyboard of the BlackBerry Z10 at some point.

BB10 Q10

"When we get an update [to BB10.1], it will come to the BlackBerry Z10 as well," head of software Vivek Bhardwaj told us. The main question is how to make it work without feeling like more work than just swiping across and opening the app with your thumb, which is why Type and Go is on the BlackBerry Q10 first.

There's no date for that BlackBerry Z10 update, or for getting BB10 on the BlackBerry PlayBook, but "BlackBerry 10 will be coming to the PlayBook at some point later this year," vice president Alec Saunders confirmed to us.

BB7 isn't dead - yet

Even though the Z10 is on sale, BlackBerry isn't killing off BB7 phones just yet. A lot of that is for the existing business market, explains Orr. "In enterprise the BB7 portfolio is the workhorse device; government, financial institutions… these guys are continuing to purchase BB7. And in the prepaid space we had a very successful run for Christmas."

So if people keep on buying BB7 handsets, BlackBerry will carry on selling them; at least for now. "On an ongoing basis we will eventually bring BB10 to those other segments of the market," Orr told us.

BB7 and BB10 will coexist for at least the rest of 2013, according to European MD Stephen Bates. "We've brought out these high-end devices as a statement of intent - to demonstrate vividly the new BlackBerry. Our intention is to evolve that portfolio to enter the mid-tier.

"But we don't see us getting to the entry-level tier for some time [with BB10]; certainly not this year. Based on the great sales we've had over Christmas in the UK there is a demand for the entry-level BlackBerry, and we don't want to give that up, so we're going to continue with Curve and the entry level as we bring BlackBerry 10 down through the mid-tier and eventually into the entry level."

With the focus on BB10, we don't expect major updates to the £99/$210 BlackBerry Curve 9320 that turned out to be the UK Christmas bestseller (at least if you were giving a phone as a present), though we might see a minor refresh.

The sales figures show BB7 doesn't have mass appeal, even compared to Windows Phone, which is also aiming at third place.

In the US, Windows Phone sales pulled ahead of BlackBerry, putting Microsoft ahead for the first time since 2006, with 2.6% US market share compared to BlackBerry's 1.1%, according to analysts Kantar. In the UK, BlackBerry is still ahead at 6.4% compared to 5.9% for Windows Phone.

But the millions of existing BB7 users are still getting new features, Bates points out. "It was important for us to show that we're not giving up on BB7. We launched BBM Voice and it connects into the BB10 world where we've added video and screen sharing."

Saunders, who is in charge of developer relations, calls BB7 "a self-sustaining market". There are a thousand new apps for BB10 arriving in BlackBerry World every day at the moment but he says "there are 10,000 to 15,000 new apps per quarter built for BB7, so the catalogue continues to grow."

And he points out that when he started his job in 2011 "there were 43,000 apps for BB7; there are over 120,000 now".

Developers will keep building BB7 apps, Chris Smith, VP of the application platform is confident, because "it's a very lucrative market."

"It's economics, it costs half as much to build a BB7 app as it does for another platform and the top earning platform [has been] BB7; 47% more revenue than iOS, 38% more than Android," he says.

BB7

Those figures come from Vision Mobile's regular Developer Economics reports; the new 2013 report shows developers viewing BB10 as one of the three platforms they look at first (alongside iOS and Android).

The higher revenue comes from the lower development costs and often higher app prices on BlackBerry World. Downloads per user are also high, plus developers tend to charge for their apps on BlackBerry rather than giving them away and making money from ads.

Does it stay an attractive market? Until there are more BB10 users than BB7 (or the remaining BB7 users change their habits), developers still have an incentive to keep making apps for them - and HTML5-based apps could run on both.

Beyond mobile

At the BlackBerry Z10 launch, Heins claimed that BlackBerry 10 would "lead the move from mobile connection to mobile computing".

But Tim Neil, the product manager for the BlackBerry platform, says we should be thinking even bigger than that. "Move past just thinking about phones and think about getting into the car and other environments." The QNX kernel used in BB10 is also used for car entertainment systems.

"The architecture allows distributed displays within the car," Neil explains. But what about taking your BlackBerry into the car? "We're looking at how we can take advantage of being at both ends of the connection in the car.

"Where we believe we have some interesting advantages is these two things can connect and actually run as one virtual environment, sharing each other's processes and doing crazy things. That opens up interesting opportunities for device to device connection, and when you get into a car, you could make things integrate more than just by displaying my app on the screen in the car."

Outside the car, he promises, "there's a lot of stuff we're doing that will be interesting; we could have more interactive screen management, or display multiple screens. There's the cloud and there's the concept of an interactive environment of devices that are close to each other - or even not close to each other but connected. What are the different things you can do there?

"We think we will see some interesting innovations come out using proximity and detecting the location and the things we can do to really connect different devices and environments together and have integration and interactions happen behind the scenes."

If you're the kind of user BlackBerry 10 is aimed at, juggling home and work and friends and wanting to do lots of things at once, and you like all the gestures and menu options (such as pressing and holding on the date in the inbox to get navigation tools), you might love this. If you're already a BlackBerry user, it will feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

The question is how wide the appeal of this different experience will be, given how many people already like the iOS and Android way of doing things.

But there's no question that BlackBerry is committed to its new platform, as the team that got 70,000 apps into BlackBerry World for launch is still hard at work supporting developers - and it's run by veterans of the same evangelism team that got the world to adopt Windows.

The arrogance and insularity of the old RIM seems to have been replaced by an underdog attitude that is reminiscent of the Windows Phone team - ironic really, since they're both battling for third place.

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