BlackBerry: All cracked up, with nowhere to go

The BlackBerry Classic remains unavailable despite months of promotion, and other signs of BlackBerry's troubles persist

broken cracked smashed blackberry smartphone
Credit: Matt Hurst via Flickr

The BlackBerry Classic is supposed to be the smartphone that saves the foundering mobile company. Although the same was said of the BlackBerry Z10 and the BlackBerry Q10 in 2013, those devices ended up failing. But the company claims the new Classic is different, marrying the beloved BlackBerry Bold design with the modern BlackBerry 10 operating system.

BlackBerry has been previewing and promoting the Classic for months, started taking pre-orders in mid-November, and even handed out review units to selected members of the press. But you can't actually buy one in the United States despite the promised December release date. Here we are in February, and the BlackBerry Classic remains a no-show.

Verizon sells the old BlackBerry Q10, Z10, and Z30 models as well as the ancient BlackBerry Bold 9930 model, which runs the obsolete BlackBerry 7 OS. AT&T and Sprint sell only the old Q10, and U.S. Cellular sells the ancient Curve 9350, again running BlackBerry 7. I can't find the Classic or Passport in the United Kingdom (once a BlackBerry stronghold), although they're available for pre-order at sites such as Carphone Warehouse.

BlackBerry is famous for misjudging its release schedules, with most products shipping well after their promised dates. This could be more of the same. In fact, a spokeswoman told me this week that AT&T availability for the Classic is "soon" and Verizon availability will be by July ("in the first half"). [Updated 2/16/15: AT&T said today that it would begin selling the BlackBerry Classic and Passport on Feb. 20.] [Updated 2/24/15: Verizon Wireless said today it would sell the Classic on Feb. 26. But it announced no plans to carry the Passport.]

Signs of trouble at BlackBerry

On the other hand, the unavailability of these much-hyped devices could indicate that BlackBerry is in worse shape than it's letting on. Certainly, there are other signs that BlackBerry's turnaround effort under CEO John Chen is going nowhere:

  • Alec Saunders, once the vice president of developer relations and briefly an executive (for a third stint) at the Internet of things-focused QNX division, left BlackBerry in December and this week announced he's rejoining Microsoft in its new-ventures group. Saunders was one of the adults at BlackBerry, so his departure is not good news.
  • Chen's bizarre letter to Congress last month saying that competitors like Apple should be forced to release their apps and services for the BlackBerry really made me wonder: Has it really come to needing the government to force app makers to support BlackBerry? Was this a sop to AT&T's efforts to undermine Net neutrality by trivializing it, in hopes of getting AT&T to sell new BlackBerry models? Or was it a PR stunt gone horribly wrong? Whatever the cause, you could feel even the pro-BlackBerry pundits turn against Chen that day.
  • BlackBerry's investors apparently want the company sold, as they doubt a turnaround will work, reports the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. Recent (and denied) rumors that Samsung wanted to buy BlackBerry may have come from those investors, who perhaps are hoping that Samsung's bizarre collaboration with BlackBerry might provide an exit strategy. 

BlackBerry Classic and Passport didn't light up reviewers

The reviewers who received prerelease BlackBerry Classic units have not really liked it, calling it a nicely built device whose time has long gone with a confused OS trying to be both the old BlackBerry and the new one. The Verge's Dieter Bohn was unimpressed, for example, and the review by CIO.com's Al Sacco started enthusiastically but ended disappointed. (To be fair, Cnet's unnamed reviewer was kinder.)

The square-screen Passport model, which was the big conversation piece for BlackBerry last summer, likewise got poor to middling notices from the few reviewers (such as the Verge's Dan Seifert) who received prerelease loaners from BlackBerry.

Ironically, the reviews of the Classic and Passport smartphones echoed very much those of the BlackBerry Q10 from 18 months earlier. The issue remains: No matter how nice the hardware may be, the BlackBerry's keyboard orientation and small-screen design make for a poor combination today. It's a problem with the paradigm, not the product model.

In 2013, BlackBerry hoped its all-touchscreen BlackBerry Z10 would lead its users into the modern smartphone era. My review shared that hope, but by then the iPhone and Android were too far entrenched with great devices, and they offered an app selection BlackBerry couldn't (and still can't) touch. The larger BlackBerry Z30 that debuted in late 2013 also went nowhere. Meanwhile, the iPhone has further improved.

The BES fallback is no sure bet

With its smartphones going nowhere and its QNX division's Internet-of-things potential both limited and long-term, BlackBerry has one other area it can leverage: device security. Its BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) 12 mobile device management (MDM) server handles iOS and Android, not only BlackBerry units; theoretically, it could become the dominant MDM platform.

Even that won't be easy: Enterprises that care about mobile management have already invested huge sums in MDM servers from the likes of Citrix Systems, Good Technology, MobileIron, and VMware, which manage everything but BlackBerrys. It's hard to see those companies moving their iOS, Android, and Windows Phone users to BES. But it's easy to see those companies shutting down BES when the BlackBerry pool gets too small to maintain.

Still, BlackBerry is a serious MDM provider, and its network is more secure than anyone's. If other devices could take advantage of that secure network, BlackBerry would have a real shot at converting companies away from those other MDM platforms.

But would Apple or Google do that? (If one did, the other would not.) Perhaps -- after all, BlackBerry is working with Google on its Android for Work management APIs, but so are several of BlackBerry's main competitors. Also, Android for Work -- announced six months ago -- remains a mystery, with no real details as to its capabilities much less its release date. It was promised for Android 5.0 Lollipop, but still isn't shipping.

Ironically, if Apple bought BlackBerry for its network technology, iOS would be practically cemented as the enterprise mobile platform of choice from presidents to product repair staff. But I wouldn't hold my breath -- Apple has already taken over the enterprise mobile market for all but the high-security needs, and the demands of that small segment likely would fit poorly into Apple's desired scalability.

Samsung might buy BlackBerry to reinvigorate its Knox mobile management product, but I don't see Samsung pulling it off, for a variety of reasons.

Better to let BlackBerry linger as essentially a defense contractor. I suspect that's Apple's view, and it's increasingly mine.

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