Image: SUPPLIED

Blackberrry Priv — PICTURE: SUPPLIED

 

As little as five years ago, it was unthinkable that BlackBerry would make a phone that didn’t run its own operating system.

This month that unthinkable event became reality when BlackBerry launched its Priv smartphone, which runs on Android. And it’s excellent.

The Priv — which stands for privacy or privilege — is an impressive device.

BlackBerry has captured the best of its operating system (its messaging hub and excellent predictive texting) and built its renowned security into Android, which is about as leaky as Windows once was.

The feature you’re most likely to notice first is the clever slide-out keypad. It does make the phone a little bulky, but it appeals to the die-hard keyboard fetishists.

The keypad doubles as a trackpad, sensing finger movements. So you can swipe sideways or scroll up and down, mimicking similar motions now widely available on laptop trackpads. It’s very useful.

What BlackBerry should do is release its predictive texting software as an app. When it first appeared in the BlackBerry 10 operating system in 2013 it was already superior to everything in the market. I use Swype on my iPhone for inputting. But the BlackBerry’s predictive texting is superior to everything I’ve tried, including SwiftKey, which was recently bought by Microsoft for $250-million.

About 70% of BlackBerry users have deserted the Canadian company’s handsets for Android, hence the focus on Google’s now ubiquitous operating system, says Gareth Hurn, BlackBerry’s global director for its device portfolio planning.

“They moved away from the keyboard [but] not because they didn’t like it. We made them use a small screen and no apps,” said Hurn, who was in SA to launch the Priv. These “loyalists will talk about missing their keyboards, but now they are invested in an ecosystem” of apps. Indeed, consumers increasingly opt for smartphone brands as much as the apps they use on them (like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat).

The Priv’s capacitive keyboard is an excellent addition to the phone, even though it makes the phone slightly thicker.

Most importantly, BlackBerry appears to have lost the wilful superiority and corporate arrogance that blinded it to the unfolding disaster over the past few years, when its market share and share price plummeted. It will never regain the commanding heights it once held, but neither will Nokia, nor Motorola — previous behemoths that are now fallen giants, having failed to innovate when the upstarts started eating their lunch.

BlackBerry’s powerful security is still a drawcard for the law enforcement and diplomatic corps, which rely on its secure mobile e-mail; and this niche set of users will surely be glad that their old faithful has been given a new lease of life.

Meanwhile, despite selling 1.4 billion smartphones (a 14.4% increase over 2014, including 403 million phones in the fourth quarter, which is up 9.7%), global smartphones sales have increased at the slowest rate since 2008, according to researchers Gartner.

After Samsung (19.9% of global market share) and Apple (20.4%), the next three of the top five handset makers are all Chinese: Huawei (5.7%), Lenovo (6.6% — which includes its new subbrand Motorola) and Xiaomi (5.1%). The rest of the market holds 42.3%.

It’s also the first time that iPhone sales have declined, reports Gartner, while the only manufacturers to increase their market share were South Korea’s Samsung and Huawei.

Big-name manufacturers like Nokia, BlackBerry, Sony and LG don’t even figure in the top five anymore. The Chinese smartphone makers — Xiaomi, Huawei, Hisense, Lenovo and others — are making handsets that are good enough and are knocking on the doors of the established big players. The landscape of smartphone manufacturers is again in flux. Who knows what the top five list will look like this time next year?

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

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