Shockingly BlackBerry has produced one of the best available Android devices, but so far AT&T is the only U.S. carrier to commit to it

For years Canadian phonemaker Research in Motion -- later renamed as BlackBerry, Ltd. (TSE:BB) fought the good fight in the smartphone space.  Once the hottest player with an over 50 percent share of smartphone sales in the world's most valuable market (the U.S.), the business minded phonemaker saw sales quickly evaporate as customers moved towards platforms like Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android and Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iOS which packed better consumer services, better developer resources, better multimedia support, and richer graphics.

I. An Android Hero Device From BlackBerry?  Yup.

BlackBerry would finally fire back in early 2013 with a major OS makeover -- BlackBerry 10.  But for the phonemaker it was tragically too little, too late.  The developers were gone, the customers were gone, and increasingly the enterprise clients -- once the company's bread and butter -- were fast bailing as well.  

Fast forward to present and AT&T, Inc. (T) has announced that it will carry BlackBerry's new smartphone, the Priv.  The Priv launches on Nov. 6 and thus far has been largely unheralded by the press.  That isn't particularly suprising given that BlackBerry is all but dead in the device space.  In fact, some might be surprised to see BlackBerry still lingering around, indeed the phonemaker continues to make some degree of noise.  But lingering it is, and it just might have a winner -- shocking as that may sound, particularly coming out of my keyboard.

BlackBerry Priv

The BlackBerry Priv powered by Android

Unlocked, the device retails for $699 USD -- a price which sounds high given BlackBerry's history, but which actually isn't bad when you fully consider the value of what you're getting.  Trust me -- even I was skeptical.  But the more you dig in, the more you realize that this device against all odds and expectations is a winner -- BlackBerry's first winner in a long, long time, arguably. 

The bigger storyline, though, is the salient shift in BlackBerry's strategy with the new device.  The Priv is the first BlackBerry smartphone to swap out the QNX derived BB10 OS for Google's Android.  The phonemaker pitches it as a "BlackBerry Secure Smartphone, Powered by Android".

Inevitably this switch will draw mixed reactions.  Some will say "duh, why didn't they do this sooner?" 

Indeed, there were long rumors of BlackBerry switching to Android for at least part of its line.  And it seemingly flirted with the idea with its compatibility wrappers, which allowed some Android apps to undergo a simple conversion repacking which allowed them to work on the PlayBook tablet without specialty code.

BlackBerry cuts

To others -- both amongst the BlackBerry faithful (few as they may be these days) and the nonbelievers -- the move will be viewed more cynically.  Indeed, it's natural to ask what BlackBerry's decision to embrace Android means to its still lingering dream of relevance as a platform maker.  The answer isn't explicitly clear, but the signs point strongly to a future without BB10 in the smarpthone space.

For now CEO John Chen has said his company plans to sell a mix of BB10 and Android Blackberries.  But his reasoning for switching some of the lineup to Android says it all.  According to CNET, he admitted that BB10 lacked the amount of apps most customers demand from a modern smartphone.

In the long run that's about as damning a self-analysis as you'll get from the Canadian phonemaker who's for so long found a way to deny the cruel reality it has faced.  And all things said it suggests that while BB10 is not dead altogether, it is a dead end which will eventually be abandoned.

BlackBerry Priv

That said, this isn't an entire loss for BlackBerry, as QNX has ultimately established itself as a dominate automotive entertainment platform.  Even as Apple, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), and others have targeted QNX's quiet hegemony in the automotive niche, it has continued to be the dominate power for the time being.

Arguably the real question with regards to BlackBerry's platform is whether QNX's relevance in automotive applications will endure after the device business moves on.  Only time will tell the answer.  But the fate of QNX in the gadgets space is all too apparent.

Word of the Priv has been swirling about the rumor mill for nearly half a year now.  Back in June word of a coming device codenamed "BlackBerry Venice" was heating up. We now know that device would be come the Priv and the rumored spec would prove suprisingly accurate in some cases obvious.

Perhaps the biggest surprise given all the tardiness, rumors, innuendo, and implications is that the Priv itself actually appears to be a really solid smartphone

Looking first at the form factor the Priv is a slider with one of BlackBerry's famous keyboards onboard.  This makes it already a device of interest as many people like physical keyboards but have been underwhelmed by the limited selection of Android sliders.  With a weight of 192 g (6.77 oz) and a thickness of 9.4 mm (0.37 in) the Priv may feel a bit thick and heavy, compared to today's average wispy razor-thin iPhone or Android flagships.  But in slider terms that's still one of the most compact devices ever made.  And it's a rather beautiful slider if such a thing is possible.

BlackBerry Priv

With a Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) Snapdragon 808 hexacore MSM8992 system-on-a-chip, the device is powered by Qualcomm's second-most powerful new 64-bit chip -- hardware worthy of an Android flagship.  The screen -- a "dual curved" 5.4-inch, 540 ppi (pixels per inch) QHD (quad high definition; 2,560 x 1,440 pixels) unit encased in Gorilla Glass 4 from Corning Inc. (GLW) -- is also a solid check on the spec sheet.  The screen's similarity to the units found in Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) Galaxy S6 Edge and Galaxy S6 Plus (the latter of which is basically a Galaxy Note 5 Edge) is no coincidence; the AMOLED technology listed on the Priv's spec sheet proves that Samsung is indeed the supplier of the part.

BlackBerry Priv

The camera is another highlight with a powerful 18 megapixel sensor and a multi-stage image stabilization and optics system from veteran German lens maker Schneider-Kreuznach (Jos. Schneider Optische Werke GmbH).  The dual LED flash is appropriate if lacking any particular wow factor.  While the lens maker is a bit of an unknown name in the smartphone space, its the magic sauce behind many excellent point and shoot cameras, so it's fair to believe this will be among the best performers in the smartphone space.  

The rest of the spec -- 3 GB of DRAM, 32 GB of NAND flash storage, microSD storage up to 200 GB, 3410 mAh battery, and a 2 MP front-facing selfie camera -- is solid.  From a pure spec standpoint the asking price of $699 USD for the unlocked device seems reasonable.

II. No More SELinux Backdoor Fears -- Why Priv Wins on Security

And BlackBerry strengthens the pitch with what's lurking deep in the device's software.  While it's technically running the latest version of Android -- Lollipop 5.1.1 (presumably to be upgraded in upcoming months to Android 6.0 Marshmallow) -- the distribution is heavily modified with a grsecurity kernel.  For those unfamiliar this is sort of a big deal as grsecurity is a long-standing Linux effort with its fair share of cred:

Grsecurity is an extensive security enhancement to the Linux kernel that defends against a wide range of security threats through intelligent access control, memory corruption-based exploit prevention, and a host of other system hardening that generally require no configuration. It has been actively developed and maintained for the past 14 years. Commercial support for grsecurity is available through Open Source Security, Inc.

What perhaps sets BlackBerry's device a notch above most existing offerings of similar premise -- e.g. Samsung's Knox -- is that it's not based on the SELinux version of Android.  While grsecurity Linux and SELinux share similar algorithms and methodology there's a key difference that will quickly cause many to favor the BlackBerry backed variant over Samsung's chosen one -- SELinux is developed and maintained by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).


While it would be nice to think that the NSA works on SELinux out of the goodness of its heart, revelations from former contractor turned whistleblower Edward Joseph Snowden suggest otherwise.  To my knowledge there weren't any direct reports of subversion of the project in particular and it is worth noting that the project is open source which means that its been publicly scrutinized.  Thus it's fair to say if there are backdoors in SELinux -- and Samsung's Knox -- they're likely of the deep and devious variety.  Google itself supports SELinux but has been wary and critical of NSA efforts.  So ostensibly it would object to any known backdoors to persist in the distribution.

But what about unknown backdoors?  That's the real dark side of SELinux.  Given the NSA's broad agenda of subversion of global encryption standards and leading smartphone platforms chances are high that the project's creator the NSA indeed has built in some highly obfuscated entryway.  After all, the NSA has been implicated in zero-day exploitation of the Heartbleed flaw in the https protocol, in addition to having been more conclusively outed in a number of tricky and platform-specific or hardware-specific backdoors.  Blackberry appears to even subtly allude to this risk in its ads for the Priv.

NSA eagle

Ultimately this might not be a big deal for businesses in the U.S., but particular for overseas enterprise users in regions like France and Germany which the U.S. government spies upon for troubling indeterminate reasons, BlackBerry may be the only commercial option.  And suffice it to say that as cooking your own alternative secured Android kernel is a tall task even for firmware experts, that means the market for this device are potentially huge.  Add in BlackBerry's growing portfolio of exclusive Android apps and services such as Picture Password, Password Keeper, BlackBerry Protect.

In the U.S., too, it may find buyers for a number of reasons including fears of domestic NSA surveillance, its devotion to the underappreciated slider form factor, and its solid overall spec.

BlackBerry Priv

Some may note the parallels between the story of the Priv and recent offerings from fellow Android holdout turned true believer, Finland's Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOKIA), the pitch is quite different here.  Where Nokia is largely looking to leverage its brand to sell ODM devices (i.e. devices designed by third parties, typically in China or Taiwan) at budget prices on a thin margin, BlackBerry is selling a phone that's undeniably expensive but packs a passable high end spec with one serious selling point -- it's a monster in the security department.

Priv -- a device who gets its name from the linguistic stem of "privilege" and "privacy" -- packs an enviable security pedigree and software portfolio.  On those points it puts basically every other Android smartphone to shame and even gives Apple's iPhone a run for its money.  In fact, given that the NSA and other U.S. spy agencies have already boasted pretty vocally about having easy access to iOS, the new kid on the block may be the most compelling phone on the block -- Android or otherwise -- for those who value their privacy.

III. Best Kept Secret

That said, if there's one unfortunately aspect it's that it took so long for BlackBerry to follow this road.  While the end result may be impeccable, BlackBerry's brand is so battered that it will have a far harder taking its message to customers.  This kind of device -- with yesteryear's high end hardware -- could have been the biggest smartphone launch of 2012 given the brand's lingering reach.

Instead at the tail end of 2015 it's a big deal but one that most won't realize.  Even the faithful over at CrackBerry call the advertising pitch "a little creepy", which bodes ill of how it will be perceived.

Simply put BlackBerry's pitch is perhaps so sophisticated that the average consumer will have trouble fully understanding or appreciating it.  And there's troubling signs for carrier support in the U.S., as well.  For now AT&T -- a network with a penchant for giving challenger devices a shot -- has been the only carrier to announce plans to support it.

While the Priv may be the most secure smartphone on the market -- and a shockingly solid Android smartphone from a fun perspective as well, I would predict it will almost assuredly not get the media coverage or sales it deserves.  Some would say that's because the average customer doesn't appreciate security.  I would argue that's only partially true.

The average customer can likely appreciate much of what the Priv embodies.  The problem is really the Priv -- or perhaps more aptly who is making it.  BlackBerry's underwhelming mobile platform, string of disappointing devices, and embarassing slide in the consumer gadget market make this kind of the case of the boy who cried wolf.  BlackBerry has cooked up a killer smartphone, but since it took so long few will ultimately appreciate this sophisticated beauty.

BlackBerry Priv

But on a more optimistic note, I would argue BlackBerry shouldn't pin too much on this device's release.  It may be disappointing to see a device that should be a star get overlooked.  But just as making enough underwhelming devices will eventually earn you a ticket to obscurity (as BlackBerry knows all too well), making hero devices will eventually do the opposite.  Thus while the Priv may be overlooked hero BlackBerry should stick to its guns because it's on to something very good.

Sources: AT&T on PR Newswire, BlackBerry on YouTube [1], [2], BlackBerry [official blog]

“So far we have not seen a single Android device that does not infringe on our patents." -- Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith

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