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Is Priv the Droid BlackBerry Has Been Looking For?

If BlackBerry is to stay in the phone business, it needs the new Android slider phone to be a success.


There’s no question that this is the Android phone BlackBerry should have built. The real question is whether it is too late.

The Priv, a high-end phone with a slide-out keyboard, packs a five-inch screen, all of Google’s services along with some unique BlackBerry touches and a clear focus on protecting the user’s information. Among the touches: A much more secure lock screen, the ability to quickly get to emails and an app that assesses the relative security of the device based on a user’s settings.

“Everything is focused on reclaiming or grabbing the space we feel like we should own, which is privacy and security,” BlackBerry Chief Operating Officer Marty Beard said in an interview.

Beard said that applies as much to the Priv as to the company’s other big areas, including server software to manage mobile devices and QNX, which powers cars and other Internet-connected devices. Beard points to a BlackBerry logo and says: “We want when somebody sees this, they see security, privacy [and say] those guys own it.

BlackBerry is counting on Priv to be a success. CEO John Chen said at Code/Mobile in October that he will get out of the hardware business if he can’t make it profitable in the next year. BlackBerry has since clarified that its goal is the end of its fiscal 2017, which runs through March 2017.

The company’s phone business has been in a downward spiral, with few businesses and even fewer consumers opting for recent offerings, all based on the redesigned BlackBerry 10 operating system introduced in 2013. Its market share, which had already dipped to below 5 percent by the middle of 2012, is now less than a third of 1 percent, according to IDC.

In deciding to build Priv, Beard said that the company had two hurdles. First, it had to be convinced there was a profitable business case. And even then, the company needed to feel comfortable that it could make a device that was both unique and truly secure even without controlling the underlying operating system.

Beard insists the Priv will surpass what he acknowledges is a high bar.

Now, the question is whether consumers will agree. Preorders began last month, and Beard said initial sales top anything in recent memory, though he didn’t provide any specific numbers.

“Relative to Passport, Classic and Leap, and [over the] same time frame, this is magnitudes better than those launches,” Beard said, adding that for the first time in ages, BlackBerry could have more demand than supply for a product.

“I’m a little worried about making sure I have enough,” said Beard, who is also in charge of BlackBerry’s manufacturing operations. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Unlike recent device launches, BlackBerry is also getting some support from carriers, though not from all of them. AT&T plans to carry the Priv in stores, and all of Canada’s major carriers are on board. The unlocked version that BlackBerry sells on its site also supports the LTE network of T-Mobile. Other U.S. carriers may also stock the Priv, though they aren’t expected to do so at launch.

Beard says BlackBerry will aggressively market the Priv, giving it a far larger marketing budget than other recent devices, such as the BB10-based Classic, Leap and Passport.

“The target we are going after is a lot broader this time,” Beard said, saying the company sees its market as everyone who has an interest in privacy or security, “not just a banker at Goldman Sachs.”

But while privacy and security are big buzzwords, they aren’t usually what prompt individuals to choose one device over another. Beard says he is convinced that is starting to shift amid all the coverage of high-profile security breaches.

He sees the most likely Priv buyers as onetime BlackBerry users who have moved on to Android but still long for the physical keyboard and other features of their old BlackBerry.

[graphiq id=”boCjwN8jmap” title=”Smartphone OS Market Share by Quarter” width=”700″ height=”541″ url=”” link=”” link_text=”Smartphone OS Market Share by Quarter | SpecOut”]

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