Blackberry on Android? Potential or Risk?
Analysis Four months ago, BlackBerry announced it was porting key features of its BlackBerry OS software to Android and iOS – stuff like its onscreen keyboard, Universal Search, and the notification Hub.
BlackBerry is thinking about using Android for an upcoming smartphone, according to a report from Reuters. The potential move is said to be part of a pivot to focus on software and device management rather than owning the operating system from top to bottom. That may well make sense for BlackBerry — after several delays to its BlackBerry 10 OS and an unspectacular launch in early 2013, the storied Canadian company now has under 1 percent of the smartphone market.
According to the report, the sliding phone briefly shown off at Mobile World Congress (above) is likely to use Google’s OS, meaning that BlackBerry would at least be contributing an unorthodox form factor to the Android ecosystem. “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation, but we remain committed to the BlackBerry 10 operating system, which provides security and productivity benefits that are unmatched,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.
While the move would be somewhat surprising, BlackBerry has flirted with Android in the past. BlackBerry 10 relies on emulated Android apps for much of its library, the BBM Messenger app was eventually released on iOS and Android, and BlackBerry has integrated its security technology into the Knox software on Samsung’s Android phones. Releasing a full-fledged Android phone could boost BlackBerry’s enterprise credentials by proving that its security and device management software can work on other, more popular platforms.
After years of speculation that BlackBerry should just give up on the company’s own platform and start making Android phones, it might actually happen. Unlike the previous speculation and prognostication, however, it doesn’t look like BlackBerry would turn into just another Android vendor. Instead, the Android device may help BlackBerry improve its standing as a device management company.
Once the top smartphone vendor, BlackBerry devices are slowly going extinct, accounting for less than 1 percent of worldwide smartphone sales during the first three months of 2015, according to market research firm Gartner. In the U.S., BlackBerry smartphones accounted for 1.5 percent of the market, based on the latest numbers from metrics firm ComScore.
With such lackluster enthusiasm for its handsets, BlackBerry has changed its focus over the last few years to offering support services for multiple device platforms. A key part of that strategy right now is BlackBerry Enterprise Server 12 (BES12), which allows IT pros to manage all kinds of devices on corporate networks, including Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows.
To help prove BES12’s multi-platform chops to skeptics, BlackBerry wants to release its own Android phone, according to Reuters. The news agency also says the slider device that the company showed off during Mobile World Congress could end up being BlackBerry’s first Android phone. The device shown at MWC featured a curved touchscreen display with a slideout keyboard in the back.
The impact on you at home: For BlackBerry fans, an Android device from the company may offer the best of both worlds. On the one hand, you get access to a host of Android apps from Google Play or a third-party store like Amazon’s. Plus you get all the great BlackBerry software features you’re used to. Although soon you may not need a BlackBerry phone for that, because the company plans to bring more of its software to competing platforms as the BlackBerry Experience Suite.
It’s not clear whether a BlackBerry-branded Android device would be available to consumers or remain strictly an enterprise product. BlackBerry could also sell the device on its own site, as it does with the Leap and Passport handsets.
Reuters also suggests that even if BlackBerry produces an Android-based phone it could still produce devices using its own operating system, BlackBerry 10.
So far BlackBerry reportedly hasn’t committed to anything, which means this may yet be another moment where the BlackBerry-Android mashup fails to appear. But if ever there was a time for the company to try making an Android phone, this is it.
Turns out that BlackBerry might have another idea for the second half of 2015 as well as ‘round down the corners of the BlackBerry Passport‘. The Canadian smartphone company is considering switching to Android for an upcoming smartphone to be launched later this year (reports Reuters and others).
The sources, who asked not to be named as they have not been authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the move to use Android is part of BlackBerry’s strategy to pivot to focus on software and device management. BlackBerry, which once dominated smartphone sales, now has a market share of less than 1 percent.
The assumption is that the ‘slider phone’ revealed in Barcelona at MWC 2015 will be the device running the operating system championed by Google. There’s no word if BlackBerry would go for the full Google Play enabled version of Android with support for all of Google’s apps, or whether it will use the Android Open Source Project as a base and create its own Android fork (as Nokia did, and Amazon continues to do).
The use of Android would be an acknowledgement that BlackBerry’s BB10 operating system is not fully fit for purpose, and that would mean much of the expense in terms of coding the system, marketing the benefits of an alternative platform, and outreach to developers will have to be put aside as a sunk cost. That’s not to say that BlackBerry’s version of Android would not feel like a BlackBerry device – the use of gestures instead of on-screen or hardware buttons will likely be one of the UI elements ported any BlackBerry/Android implementation.
BlackBerry’s key software elements, including BlackBerry Hub, will also need to be ported to run on Android, and it is worth noting that some elements (such as BlackBerry Messenger) have already been ported and are available on Android along with Windows Phone and iOS.
BB10 already supports the running of Android applications, although without Google Play certification developers and consumers are left to using alternative Android application stores (such as Amazon’s App Store) or distributing installation files to users. A Google Play certified BlackBerry device would have easy access to the full range of Android apps, but with strict requirements on the inclusion placement of Google apps, certification would limit BlackBerry’s ability to stand out through its software.
Blackberry on Android? The Potential
Today’s CEO John Chen is one of the most frank, and possibly the wittiest, chief execs of any tech company, and he’s talked himself blue repeating the strategy: BlackBerry will continue to sell devices as long as it is profitable, but he’s been less emphatic about whether the phones will run BB10
Two years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel switched to a BlackBerry with SecuSmart providing the secure voice-call encryption. BlackBerry now owns SecuSmart, and it is licensed for use in a new Samsung/IBM tablet. It’s not hard to imagine BlackBerry software “hardened” with SecuSmart that runs on Android. BlackBerry has hinted at more collaboration with Samsung.
Chen has expertise as a turnaround artist is in selling enterprise software. His impressive handpicked leadership team, including veterans from Sybase, knows this turf very well, much better than newcomers. And The plan is to grow the software side into a $500m-a-year business.
“One thing that philosophically changed a lot from 16 months ago: we’re committed to making software as a business,” Chen told a gathering of analysts and press at MWC. “Our software technology roadmaps address everybody’s phones and everybody’s end points. An end point is more important than ‘phone’.”
The difficulty with developing on Android and iOS, assuming BB10 is gradually put into maintenance mode, is the dispersal of resources. That is not the only obstacle.
It would be easier to integrate Blackberry’s software into the shell on Android; the Hub would most likely be the shell. iOS is so locked down, and the Hub would need to be a standalone app.
BB10 is pretty distinctive, and its portfolio of tools now quite rich; differentiating it from the pack of cheap ‘droids should not be difficult, particularly if it builds on an AOSP base and is free of the Google-ware. (Samsung has it own app store, and would surely be happy to help.)
Thanks to increasing concerns about internet security, the market is now taking this issue much more seriously. BlackBerry has a magic glue, its own network; that makes what would otherwise be me-too services much more compelling. It has a huge enterprise footprint already. There are worse places to be in the brutal world of phone hardware today than selling a secure, well managed, compatible but better Android to people who want a secure compatible well-managed phone.
By making an Android device that boasts a large touchscreen and a physical keyboard, BlackBerry hopes to snag a niche in the touchscreen-dominated Android market. The device may attract those still using older BlackBerry keyboard handhelds but who want access to the larger app options Android offers.
Blackberry on Android? The Risk
A switch to Android-powered hardware does make some business sense. While BlackBerry continues to design smartphone, the construction is by Foxconn. With Android OS driving the hardware, there are cost savings to be made through off-the-shelf hardware with existing driver support for Android. John Chen continues to focus on efficiency savings and cost reductions – reducing the support cost on hardware integration with software could be his next target.
Assuming that BlackBerry’s flavor of Android can retain the distinctiveness of BB10, this is a good but also risky strategy. There will be short-term pain, both in switching cost and in managing the negative press a switch will create. In the medium term BlackBerry has very little market share to lose, so it needs to keep the faithful happy or revenue will be lost.
But the biggest risk is in the long term, Android is a steamroller of a behemoth. Smaller smartphone companies such as HTC and Sony have been burned by the platform, and left in far weaker positions than when they started before. There is a danger that BlackBerry becomes another generic design house providing Chinese factories with cookie-cutter hardware specifications, and only the slightest touch of differentiation in physical cues on the hardware. It’s all about standing out in software, promoting the difference that BlackBerry’s software can make, and using that to drive more sales.
BlackBerry has spent the last few years pushing the idea that BB10 is different in a way that is beneficial to their consumer. While their platform has its fans, it has not been able to convince the mass market that the BB10 software was viable as a mainstream platform. Switching to a potentially non-Google version of Android, and adding in the unique UI elements from BB10 leaves BlackBerry the same problem that has not been answered yet.
Would anyone buy a modern BlackBerry device with the limitations and restrictions it offers, instead of a Google Play certified Android handset or a device in the widely supported iOS platform?
News Update: Reuters