Euro Security Watch with Mathew J. Schwartz

Is 'Priv' Smartphone BlackBerry's Last Stand?

Handset Maker Releases First-Ever Android Device
Is 'Priv' Smartphone BlackBerry's Last Stand?
BlackBerry Priv runs the Android operating system.

Would you buy a BlackBerry Priv?

See Also: 5 Requirements for Modern DLP

Beleaguered smartphone manufacturer BlackBerry is looking to reboot its fortunes with the upcoming launch of the new smartphone, which runs Android and emphasizes privacy and security.

But one analyst says the move looks like the beleaguered device maker's "last stand."

Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry, however, is hoping that the new device, dubbed Priv for privacy, will restore its flagging fortunes. The $699 handset is scheduled to make its U.S. debut Nov. 6 via mobile phone provider AT&T.

BlackBerry's decision to build its first-ever device that runs the Android operating system represents a sharp change for the organization, which historically built its own operating systems and offered a range of devices with built-in QWERTY keyboards. The Priv includes a slide-out physical keyboard.

BlackBerry is also attempting to convince buyers that the new devices, despite being built on Android, still sport BlackBerry-level security, privacy and productivity features, including the company's well-regarded encryption technology, as well as a unified inbox that mixes email, text and other messages, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Analysts say the phone will compete with high-end Android phones made by Samsung, HTC as well as the privacy-focused Blackphone.

London's Burning

With new hardware and the freshened security and privacy focus, the launch of Priv may be the most exciting thing to involve BlackBerry since the 2011 London riots. At the time, Britain's communications regulator and competition authority, Ofcom, reported that the BlackBerry messenger service, or BBM - a free alternative to texting - was the communication medium of choice for the young people who coordinated the riots via their low-end BlackBerry handsets.

Even then, however, BlackBerry was struggling, thanks to Apple and Android offering better-designed devices, snazzier operating systems and many more app options via their burgeoning app stores. And Blackberry's most recent previous reboot attempt, in the form of the BlackBerry 10 platform, failed to boost sales. Today, BlackBerry - formerly known as Research In Motion - reportedly accounts for just 0.3 percent of new mobile device sales worldwide. It shipped a paltry 800,000 units in the quarter that ended in August - its lowest level since 2007.

Banks, Governments Cease Free BlackBerries

BlackBerry sales recently took another hit, as many U.S. banks announced that they will no longer provide employees with free BlackBerries, The Wall Street Journal reports. JPMorgan Chase says that move should save it tens of millions of dollars per year. Many other financial services firms as well as government agencies are also now requiring employees to buy their own mobile phone and subscription plan.

BlackBerry's stock price has declined in value by about 30 percent over the past year.

While smartphones still account for 40 percent of BlackBerry's profits, CEO John Chen has been aggressively cutting costs. He's also promised that if the company cannot reboot its smartphone line, then he's prepared to cut it.

Chen has been diversifying the company's product line, creating an Internet of Things platform as well as bolstering BlackBerry's enterprise mobile device management capabilities, which now include software to manage iOS, Android and Windows devices. On Nov. 2, the company announced that it had completed its $425 million acquisition of former MDM competitor Good Technology (see BlackBerry's MDM Future: Good Move).

Cautious Optimism

The impending launch of Priv, however, does appear to be stoking cautious optimism from some current and former BlackBerry users.

If Priv doesn't take off, however, this may be the last handset that BlackBerry ever builds. "Perhaps there's something else in the pipeline, but this device does seem like a last stand," Brian Colello, a Chicago-based analyst at Morningstar Investment Services, tells Bloomberg. "We've seen new products come out for the last couple years. BlackBerry's trying to get a hit with any form factor, any price point and now it's with a different operating system."

But whether the Android and privacy play will make BlackBerry devices attractive again remains to be seen.

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

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