With its latest smartphones, the BlackBerry Classic and BlackBerry Passport, continuing to attract no buyer interest, BlackBerry's hardware business seems destined for the dustbin of history. Yet fans continue to hope for some Hail Mary move from the once-dominant mobile device maker.
The latest straws for the BlackBerry faithful to grasp was a rumor last week reported by Reuters that BlackBerry might adopt Android for a new device to ship this fall. In response, BlackBerry's PR staff issued what's called a nondenial denial, saying it was committed to its current BlackBerry 10 OS but saying nothing about future plans that might involve Android. Nothing ruled in, nothing ruled out -- the Android straws remain available for the grasping.
It's a facile solution to suggest that a failing device maker adopt Android instead of its own platform. Remember -- a couple years ago Nokia was told to do that because of Windows Phone's poor sales, and years before that Hewlett-Packard was told to do so because of its WebOS failure.
The rationale: Android is popular, so adopting Android will make your devices popular and have you again rake in the cash.
BlackBerry of course has been having a dalliance with Android for years. When it first announced BlackBerry OS 10 in 2012, it promised the ability to run Android apps. That promise kept changing, and what was finally delivered is a developer tool to port Android apps to BlackBerry OS 10 and, more recently, a way to run Fire OS apps on BlackBerry 10. (Fire OS is Amazon.com's not very successful fork of Android.) This sort-of Android compatibility has done nothing to help BlackBerry sales.
One reason is that those Fire OS apps fit poorly on the squat screens of the BlackBerry Classic and BlackBerry Passport, whose aspect ratios are nonstandard. Moving to a true Android OS wouldn't solve that issue, though it would one-up the floodgates for users as to app choices.
Profits don't come easy with Android
The notion that Android's popularity ensures device sales and profits is simply not true. Companies like Sony and LG have struggled for years in getting buyers for their Android smartphones, and original leader HTC struggles to do so today. Even Samsung, which is the top seller of Android devices, struggles to make money from them.
Android is the most popular mobile platform throughout the world, but Android devices are pretty much the same from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it's hard to stand out. Samsung has done so with its Note series and, off and on, with its Galaxy S series.
Others have not been so fortunate. And in many parts of the world, where people earn little, the cheap Android devices that make almost no profit dominate the market. Finally, there's China, where the government has warped the market to favor homegrown providers like Xiaomi. BlackBerry can't play in those markets.
That leaves the "stand out" possibility in richer markets. One is through unique hardware, another is through its defense-level security.
BlackBerry users love keyboards; Android users, not so much
BlackBerry has several iconic smartphone designs that maybe would have broader appeal running Android. That really means its keyboard-centered designs, like the Classic and Passport.
It's an easy leap to suggest that if BlackBerry offered an Android smartphone with its iconic, beloved physical keyboard, it would own a strong, lucrative niche. But when Android makers tried the same thing four or five years ago, their keyboard-equipped smartphones sold poorly. I haven't seen one on the market for several years now.
Is a physical keyboard really the draw some suggest? I don't think so.
Maybe it's worth a test to see, but it's a risk because it would signal to the market that BlackBerry 10 is dead, no matter how the company tries to spin the rollout of an Android device. If a keyboard-quipped Android smartphone from BlackBerry flopped, I don't think the company can go back to business as usual.
A safer test would be to license its keyboard to an Android device maker -- or, instead of killing the Typo add-on keyboard product to have come up with a license deal to test the waters.
BlackBerry's security advantage may be hard to replicate in Android
There's no question that BlackBerrys are the most secure smartphones available. What is questionable: How many users actually need that high level of security. Given that BlackBerry sales now comprise less than 1 percent of smartphone sales, and iPhones and some Android smartphones are now rated as secure for large swaths of government workers, it's hard to see high security as anything but a niche market.
Still, niche markets can be profitable, especially with defense-type agencies willing to spend thousands of dollars on each piece of hardened equipment. The notion make a lot of sense.
Where the notion falls down is in execution. There are two aspects to the BlackBerry platform that let it be so secure.
One is the tight integration of custom BlackBerry hardware with the custom BlackBerry OS. Only Apple has a similar ability. The Android OS is like Windows: It has to run on all sorts of hardware. The other is its system of network operations centers (NOCs) that secures the communications channel, not only the device.
BlackBerry would have to create a custom version of Android -- and maintain that fork with each new Android version -- that was deeply tired into its hardware. BlackBerry has struggled for years to deliver software in any reasonable schedule, routinely missing ship dates by months, then taking a year or so to deliver on the initial promises through multiple updates. I don't see it being able to deliver a secure Android version at a reasonable enough pace to gain adoption.
It's also really hard to do that type of deep OS modification. Similar efforts such as Silent Circle's Blackphone and General Dynamics' secure Android have not gone very far. Silent Circle is a startup with limited resources, but GD is a well-established defense contractor with boatloads of money.
If BlackBerry could pull off a secure Android smartphone that equaled BlackBerry's current security levels and ran Android apps well, it could ensure a strong niche in a market willing to pay. For BlackBerry to remain in the hardware business, that seems like the best solution.
Unfortunately, I doubt the company's ability to pull it off. I hope I'm wrong.
Difficult options beyond the BlackBerry smartphone
All this means an Android strategy is no sure winner for BlackBerry, due to market, execution, and technological reasons. In fact, the odds are stacked against it, so Android becomes a dangerous path if done naively or sloppily.
Of course, BlackBerry has other stay-in-business options in play.
One is its BES12 mobile device management (MDM) server, which manages multiple operating systems. BlackBerry faces many well-established competitors here.
The BES12 strategy depends on companies that have only an older version of BES to upgrade, then formally support iOS and Android from it. But companies that need to manage their mobile devices already have an MDM platform for iOS and Android, and BES12 lacks more advanced capabilities around application and content management that competitors, such as MobileIron and VMware AirWatch, have today. The potential for BES12 is less than meets the eye.
There's also its QNX Internet of things play, which is not a huge business but a well-respected one.
Finally, BlackBerry talks up its various services like BlackBerry Messenger and some of its nicer BlackBerry OS features like the BlackBerry Hub as potential for service or licensing income. The chat business is a no-profit zone with lots of established competitors. Hub really is a nice way to manage the communications on your device, but unless it's part of Android proper, it's hard to see it making an impact -- Android device makers have learned the hard way how little users want bolted-on apps and skins.