Android Intelligence Analysis

Could Google carry the BlackBerry torch?

As the last remnants of a smartphone icon melt away, an opening for a de facto business-friendly brand beckons.

BlackBerry Android Upgrade
NeuPaddy, modified by IDG Comm (CC0)

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Let me just clear something up right off the bat here: No, you haven't entered some weird sort of virtual time warp. And no, this isn't a mislabeled column from the early 2000s.

This is a genuine, current statement: The era of the BlackBerry phone has ended. Yes, again.

In case you hadn't heard (and it'd be an easy story to have missed — or to have assumed was errantly being resurfaced from the past), the company responsible for making BlackBerry phones has announced it is stepping away from the effort and will create no more devices with that iconic name attached.

Now, the story isn't quite what it seems on the surface. The company in question isn't actually BlackBerry itself. Nope — that company, the entity once known as Research in Motion, hasn't been making hardware since 2016.

That same year, a company called TCL took over the act as part of a licensing deal in which it'd produce, sell, and support phones under the BlackBerry brand, with Android at the devices' core and BlackBerry itself providing the supplementary software and services. (TCL had similar arrangements with Alcatel and Palm, too — so, yeah: It's kind of like the mobile-tech equivalent of a really convincing 90s cover band, only with far less flannel.) This week, TCL said that arrangement had expired.

Let's be honest, though: BlackBerry, as a phone brand, had basically been on life support for a while. The Android-based BlackBerry phones of recent years were never especially exceptional, and for all the lingering fond feelings toward the name, it didn't seem like many people were actually buying the devices. And that's to say nothing of the brand's dismal performance with delivering Android operating system updates — a harsh reality that was firmly at odds with its security-centric message (and is only likely to get worse for any remaining phone-owners now that the TCL partnership is kaput).

Still, if we think back a ways, there was a time when BlackBerry was synonymous with security-first, business-friendly smartphones — devices designed not for Snapchatting or WhatsApping but rather for serious professionals who wanted to get work done, use the best productivity services available, and know that their technology would always be maximally secure.

And that, when you really stop and think about it, is a role no other company has yet managed to fill.

I mean, sure: Samsung sells tons of phones, but its strengths lie in hardware — with a user experience that leaves something to be desired, an understandable position in which timely operating system updates (even with recent improvements) are simply not a top priority, and a data-selling side hustle that's anything but in line with enterprise expectations.

Apple, meanwhile, plays up the security card when it's convenient (ahem), but few would dispute that Google's services are generally superior. Even critical reviews of Pixel phones tend to talk about how the devices are a delight to use because of their superlative software and the holistic, cohesive-feeling way in which they integrate Google's best properties.

And therein lies the rub: Despite those foundational assets, every Pixel phone seems to have some asterisk attached to it that keeps it from earning a widespread, wholehearted recommendation. With no real exception, there's always some big "but" attached: "It's the best way to experience Android and Google services, but..." (insert each year's reason for hesitation here).

When you talk about what made classic BlackBerry phones great, the themes you tend to hear about the most are their ease of use — enabled in large part as a result of having a single company simultaneously developing the operating system and the services around it — along with their focus on security and productivity above everything else. (There was also, of course, the hardware keyboard, but despite our collective nostalgia for such a physical feature, phone-makers insist that hardly anyone actually wants to buy devices that trade screen space or sleekness for a dedicated QWERTY surface.)

Well, guess what? Those are impossibly close to the same qualities that describe Google's core strengths in its self-made smartphone efforts. Within Android, all other pros and cons aside, no other company comes close to the ease of use and the holistic environment Pixel phones create — where Google services blend seamlessly into the operating system instead of feeling awkwardly at odds with competing forces. No other Android-connected company has the incentive to make ongoing upgrades a priority at the level that Google does (and yes, those upgrades really do matter when it comes to areas like privacy and security).

And while Apple enjoys some of those advantages within its own ecosystem, Google-using iPhone owners grumble plenty about the headaches they endure and the hoops they have to jump through to make Google services an integral part of the iOS experience. It still isn't the complete picture, at least not when Google services are involved.

If anyone could fill the void BlackBerry's leaving behind — the void of a cohesive, complete mobile-tech experience with top-notch native services and an emphasis on both productivity and security — Google is arguably the company best positioned to do it. And considering that its selling point for the Pixel phone seems to be in a constant state of flux, a business-centric approach could provide the focus that product line needs to stand out from the pack and have a clear form of appeal for an average, non-enthusiast buyer.

All it'd take would be a pivot in marketing, an emphasis on the right elements, and a physical phone form without any significant shortcoming to distract from the message.

Simple as it seems, it's a lot to ask. But no other company is so tantalizingly close to accomplishing it.

That being said, there is one other company setting its sights on a similarly smooth and cohesive business-aimed experience: Microsoft. With the promise Microsoft is showing in its early Android-repurposing efforts — and the company's existing emphasis on productivity and security as priorities — it doesn't seem like a huge leap to imagine Microsoft making a serious play for that de facto business phone title as the years progress.

For now, though, it's Google's race to lose. And at this point, it's not entirely clear if it's even on the track and competing.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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