BlackBerry software
BlackBerry software pursuit on course

If you were planning to erect a virtual tombstone to mark the end of BlackBerry BB10 OS, BB is not pulling the plug yet, since it has plans to keep it breathing for a longer term.

Indeed, it is somewhat curious that after a company decides to discontinue manufacturing products running on its proprietary OS, decides to keep the OS itself alive. After introducing the BB10 in 2013, 2016 was the first full year when it was not used on any of the BB phones. In turn, this paradox gives the feeling that BlackBerryBB10 OS is only perhaps waiting for its natural death. But, executives at BB are quick with a different view.

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As at the end of the third quarter of 2016, BB’s market share dipped to a mere 0.1% globally. However, the company’s Android devices performed better. In the midst of this dismal performance and recent positive vibes on ‘Mercury’, the device yet to be launched by BB, as well as BB10 lacking the future hardware, Senior VP at BB for Global device sales, Alex Thurber spoke on future plans for BB10.

BlackBerry BB10 OS Chugging along

Not surprisingly, Thurber affirmed that BlackBerry continues to be invested in BB10. After a prolonged wait, version 10.3.3 was released by BB in December last and version 10.3.4 appears to be in the works though there is no confirmation to that effect.

In government and enterprise segment, BlackBerry BB10 OS has a strong fan base, apart from consumers in specific markets. Thurber stated that he is keen to ensure BB’s users and customers do not get the feel that continuing support for BB10 is not forthcoming because BlackBerry BB10 OS is not receiving any fresh investment.

Because BlackBerry is not releasing any of the numbers these days, there is no clarity on what ‘millions of users’ claimed by the company for the OS, truly represents. What we do know however is the absence of app support that has dogged the OS right from its start has been one among the reasons that caused the tailspin for BB10.

Recently, WhatsApp had decided to cease supporting BlackBerry BB10 OS  from end 2016 but changed the heart to announce a continuation till 30th June 2017. Earlier, FaceBook ceased extending support and so did MyAccount app from Telus’.  Thurber, however, reiterated the disappointment of BB on the initial decision of WhatsApp and BB executives were now happy with the extension. Yet, the exodus caused by the app support remains a key factor surrounding BB10 which is beyond the company’s control. Thurber added that the issue is out of BB’s hands though support for the Hub and the OS is continuing particularly since several users really rely on it and reckon it to be a true messaging device. He also admitted that the development is partly attributable to strategic decisions made some 5 years ago and that has also been partly why Android was added to the company’s portfolio. In turn, he said BB is excited to present the Priv and DTEK series of devices with true BlackBerry security and complete access to Google Play store.

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It is business strategy – BlackBerry BB10 OS

In transitioning to devices with Android base, the implication obviously was that BB10 would either be recast as an enterprise and business platform or killed off in due course of time. With the latter getting public rebuke (this report included), the former might see the light of the day.

Thurber adds that the partnership entered with TCL recently represents a licensing agreement where TCL will manufacture devices under the BlackBerry brand, and the key tenet of this deal is that it will cover only Android- based products. In other words, BB10 is not part of the deal.

If TCL were not in the picture, then who would be making phones that run on BlackBerry BB10 OS. Thurber has no comments on hypothesis or road maps. Therefore, there is lack of clarity on any other recourse available to BlackBerry.  BB has stopped making Leaps, Passports or Classics and any remaining inventory is presently being sold through BB’s own store, the carriers as well as other retailers in various countries.

Thurber adds that BlackBerry is the singular manufacturer other than Google that is committed to monthly updates across the company’s product line.

The first licensing deal that BB entered was with “BB Merah Putih” in Indonesia which is a joint venture between PT Tiphone and BlackBerry. This deal could give us a clue since the agreement confirms that BB Merah Putih would source, distribute and market BlackBerrry products in Indonesia. However, it was not clear immediately whether the arrangement includes manufacturing or if that would be outsourced to third parties. BlackBerry is also reportedly in advanced stages of a licensing arrangement with another Indian company.

Either way, when a local vendor in a particular country was willing to take charge and produce the handsets for its indigenous market, that possibly was the type of licensing deals John Chen, the CEO of BlackBerry mentioned when he moved the company away from building captive hardware.

Thurber also stated that BB10 continues to be patronized as a real consumer product and that the brand is pretty strong in countries like India, Indonesia, and South Africa. Consumers in many countries have moved towards the demand for app stores and apps and that partly explains why BlackBerry BB10 OS has shifted to traditional users of businesses, enterprises, and governments. Thurber added further that these are some of the company’s strong subset of customers and they do lobby BB for new hardware. These are also developing countries where the users will eventually transition to iOS and Android as has been the experience in developed countries.  On the hypothesis of BB10 merging with Android, one way or the other, or a dual-boot scenario perhaps like the way Apple supported Windows with the Boot Camp software for Intel-based Macs, Thurber stated that it was a significantly more complex task compared to the Boot Camp software. He was also quick to add that these options were examined as a potential, but the project is pretty complex and therefore BB is not pursuing the idea. He also added that plenty of feedbacks on the continuance of BlackBerry BB10 OS on devices other than phones do keep coming in. As and when a promising idea comes up and meets the expectations of customers and also makes sense from the technological perspective, BB will certainly pursue it.

This era belongs to Android

The fading fortunes of BlackBerry BB10 OS in North America prompted adoption of Android and positioning it as a primary software platform with a layer of BB’s very own unique security as icing on top.

The most recent offerings DTEK 50 and 60 came from the TCL stable and have reportedly ‘achieved their selling targets’ though the numbers have not been revealed for the public. The DTEK 50 was pretty much a clone of Idol 4 from the Alcatel brand and targeted primarily at enterprise users and businesses in Western Europe and Canada. In the U.S. it was not offered by any carrier.

Like the Priv, the DTEK 60 was more consumer focused. In both the cases, the core selling point was more consistent and robust security for enhanced protection of users from vulnerabilities of the Android. In Government, enterprise and consumers in specific markets around the globe, BlackBerry BB10 OS enjoys a strong following.

On regular monthly updates, BB has successfully maintained rolling out the security updates regularly every month as it promised earlier. Thurber also points out that “significant changes” to Linux Kernel as well as Android were made before the companies released the changes to its users of Android-based services. The work on updates for BlackBerry is accomplished by engineers in Ottawa, Ontario, Waterloo and Mississauga facilities and applied to the manufacturing process where each phone is physically touched to inject a crypto-security key before the device is released from the production line.  Thurber also affirmed that immediate plans for releasing DTEK app to devices aside the BlackBerry brand are not in place for now. The indication possibly was the Alcatel line that TCL manufactures.

Marketing strategy – BlackBerry BB10 OS

BlackBerry has been incessantly criticized for its marketing strategy, or perhaps a lack of it. Thurber completes his first year with BlackBerry in April 2017 and therefore, has not been part of the board in the preceding years. For the same reason, he prefers not to comment on what was done or not done in the past, though he was willing to speak on what should be done going forward.

The licensing agreements, he said, should, for one “enhance” the marketing programs, particularly those that are location based.  More importantly, he says that because of the local flavor, the plan and investment strategy devised by the licensing partners will focus on the local market and will be tuned to the needs of that market. Thurber calls this as ‘global consistency with a local flavor’. This is the marketing lingo for campaigns and programs tailored or focused specifically on local markets.  Global campaigns like what has been seen in the past are unlikely to be coming back anytime in the near future.

But, in Canada, U.S. and more mature markets, security is at the center of sales angle and the biggest challenge in selling security is that nothing happens when it works, says Thurber. Further, that is not the singular challenge and BYOD (bring your own device) trend that businesses are adopting is not a mere ‘flash in the pan’. Gartner, a market research organization projected in 2013 that 50% of all employers would ask their employees to bring their personal devices for the purpose of work by 2017. A more recent study by the same organization also found that adoption of mobile devices issued by corporate in workplaces is yet to mature.

BYOD on one side contributes to an inherent need for security. When you look at the other side, there is the enterprise space offering room for growth which in turn means that many more devices can still go around. If Android takes a bigger share of that space, BlackBerry should grab its share of that pie on the basis of the stated narrative. But, where does that leave BB10? Thurber says that BB is always exploring technologies that are right to bring out its OS. Millions of BB10 users are concerned about highly secure communication and top-speed and BB remains committed to supporting those users.

That sums up the state of BB10 for now, and one thing for sure is that at BlackBerry no one is ready yet to chuck dirt in famed BlackBerry BB10 OS.