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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]

Comments     Threshold

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Do you need a subject in the comment?
By Yorgos on 11/3/2015 8:32:46 AM , Rating: 2
God damn it!
Give me that sliding keyboard from the side and not from the bottom and I'll buy it yesterday.

RE: Do you need a subject in the comment?
By bug77 on 11/3/2015 8:44:32 AM , Rating: 2
I bet you can pull that keyboard sideways no problem. You just need to apply enough force :D

By w1z4rd on 11/3/2015 9:44:43 AM , Rating: 2
you need to hold it right :p on its side so it can slide from its side

By MIKE ROTCH on 11/12/2015 11:25:47 AM , Rating: 2
It could twist to resemble a crucifix. But it would look inverted & likely offend the religious consumer.

I'd buy it but SWYPE keyboard is so GD quick these days...

By domboy on 11/4/2015 8:52:45 AM , Rating: 2
Give me that sliding keyboard from the side and not from the bottom and I'll buy it yesterday.

I hear you, I'm a bit on the fence on that. The slider that I've had in the past were landscape not portrait, but on the other hand, I'd be willing to give this a shot just to get a physical keyboard again. I hope Verizon will pick this up eventually, as I'm very interested...

RE: Do you need a subject in the comment?
By DT_Reader on 11/4/2015 12:54:33 PM , Rating: 2
Get rid of the sliding keyboard, use the space for a bigger battery, and cut the price (that sliding keyboard can't be cheap) and I'll buy it.

RE: Do you need a subject in the comment?
By bug77 on 11/5/2015 4:44:35 AM , Rating: 2
You've just described at least a dozen existing Android phones. Why would Blackberry want to go there?

RE: Do you need a subject in the comment?
By DT_Reader on 11/5/2015 1:59:44 PM , Rating: 2
Name another phone based on the grsecurity kernel. Please.

RE: Do you need a subject in the comment?
By Nortel on 11/6/2015 1:03:24 PM , Rating: 2
Name another regular customer (BB has to sell 5 million phones to stay afloat) who has any idea what the grsecurity kernel is .

By lexluthermiester on 11/7/2015 9:30:47 PM , Rating: 2
I do, but I'll admit that I had no idea Blackberry was using it in their variety of Android. If they are, I say Bravo! And I think I just found my next phone. Blackberry again... That just sounds and feels right!

Landscape slider keyboard is preferable, but this one looks nice and is likely to be of the same quality of former Blackberry models. So I think I'm all in.

RE: Do you need a subject in the comment?
By piroroadkill on 11/5/2015 9:26:56 AM , Rating: 2
Go buy an Xperia Z phone, they've got great battery lives already.

This phone is ONLY interesting because it has the keyboard. If you take that away you're doing something pointless.

By lexluthermiester on 11/7/2015 9:51:54 PM , Rating: 2
If you take that away you're doing something pointless.

Did you miss the part about being very secure? It's kinda been R.I.M.'s thing for over a decade. And they're very good at it...

By inperfectdarkness on 11/5/2015 10:22:47 AM , Rating: 2
I wondered about that. Landscape keyboard seemed to work well for droid & was very popular for a time. Then again, portrait keyboard is part of the BB lineage. So I can completely understand the choice to make a portrait-aspect slider.

FWIW though, I don't see anything that says this phone WON'T have a touch keyboard as well. I'm not really into smartphones at all, but this would "almost" make me reconsider. The only problem is, it would have to be offered on T-Mobile (10GB/month, heck yeah).

By Iantech on 11/5/2015 1:12:46 PM , Rating: 2
Why is it shocking?

And you can have it. We've become obsessed with large screens.

By Any14Tee on 11/7/2015 5:17:26 AM , Rating: 2
keyboards serve a niche market, I would say if Blackberry wishes to be competitive again and challenge the the likes of Samsung,HTC,Sony,LG etc. make a pure android device without the keyboard with a larger battery, metal body and sprinkle a little bit of magical Blackberry dust and whey-ah the New King on the Block.

By AntDX316 on 11/17/2015 10:09:55 PM , Rating: 2
phone crashes alll the time but

I was able to pull up email since 2009 which on the website email and other phones I couldn't even pull any emails from aol and google

this did as I think it has some sort of patented email retrieving system and the way it checks and validates is deeper

I went iphone and samsung and lg it could not pull EMAILS LIKE THIS

it crashes all the time because it does stuff right but other phones are like yeah it's done but actually deep deep down it's not, its not DONE they just say it is so you can have peace of mind but its not done and that is wrong

Do one with touch too!
By LBID on 11/3/2015 2:47:00 PM , Rating: 2
I've never been a fan of physical keyboards on the phone, but am definitely a fan of the enhanced security and excellent camera optics. Hopeful that a touch version will be released as well!

RE: Do one with touch too!
By ven1ger on 11/3/2015 4:24:26 PM , Rating: 2
I like the physical keyboard as I have about average hands for a guy but always having problems with the touch keyboard. Though I'm not a fan of premium phones and their cost. I'd prefer something a little more in the mid-range with the keyboard.

BB going all or nothing seems kind of reckless. They have lost almost all of its marketshare, I'd think they would want to probe the waters a bit with something more mid-range to build back up consumer confidence with the brand. I wouldn't want to buy a premium phone if I don't know the company will be around next year or not, similar to how I feel about HTC.

RE: Do one with touch too!
By Manch on 11/3/2015 5:18:16 PM , Rating: 2
The loss of their market share and mind share for that matter is exactly why they are releasing a high end phone, a halo product.

Now as far as specs goes, its up there but they still need to differentiate themselves. The keyboard and their security aspect have been hallmarks of a BB device so having those sets it apart from other phones.

I do wonder how different their branch of Android is and how will that affect upgrading to the newer version of Android. Implementing that kind of security into a device requires a good bit more validation.

Halo products sell lower models. Like the old adage goes; Race on Sunday, sell on Monday. If this phone does decent, then I think you will see a cut down version. I do think they should drop the price a bit though bc they no longer have that critical mind share to get people to drop $700 on their phones.

Even if they go tits up in the end, you can always just load a vanilla version of Android on it or Win 10 mobile even if MS does release a ROM. I don't think they will though.

RE: Do one with touch too!
By LBID on 11/5/2015 2:57:30 PM , Rating: 2
I'd agree, a halo product makes the most market sense for BB at this point. They need to have something striking to hang their hats (and subsequent product offerings) on.

By bug77 on 11/3/2015 4:22:41 AM , Rating: 2
First article in a while that's not 2km ling and I can actually from the beginning to the end.

Does this have a custom skin, too? Because it appears so and if that's true, that's almost an automatic "one OS upgrade 6-9 months after Google releases it and that's it".

RE: Wow!
By bug77 on 11/3/2015 5:52:50 AM , Rating: 4
Hm, I've just noticed, this is another QHD screen which is both wasteful and a bit too much for SD808. Then again, gamers were never the target audience for these things, so it's not that bad.

Wary of SELinux? waht about...
By Manch on 11/3/2015 9:04:05 AM , Rating: 2
Are you wary of TOR as well?

RE: Wary of SELinux? waht about...
By Moishe on 11/3/2015 11:37:15 AM , Rating: 2
I am wary of being wary.

And of TOR.

Where is
By StormyKnight on 11/3/2015 8:53:03 PM , Rating: 2
Pirks? Pirks?? Where are you? Your Blackberry fanboism is missed here. Just wondering how you feel about the abandonment of QNX for Android. Man, wouldn't be hilarious if this somehow turns the company around? Oh, do be a good sport and come back to share your thoughts...

By little birdy on 11/4/2015 9:56:50 AM , Rating: 2
While I would rather have this new phone in android than not have it at all, BlackBerry 10 is a fantastic OS, and all their BB10 phone models have something to offer, be it a clean simple touch screen or a fabulous keyboard-touchscreen combination.

They may have made (lots of) marketing mistakes, but aside from their limited availability of android apps, which they had pretty much fixed except the good app developers had lost interest, they had a superior OS and always superior quality in their hardware. They had FOUR new BlackBerry 10 touchscreen phones and FOUR new BB10 keyboard phones come out in the last three years, and it was lack of public knowledge and lack of carrier support that prevented their success. Those who use them love them.

Some android apps were a bit clunky, others, well there was no reason you couldnt just use the powerful browser to get there instead and put a shortcut on your phone screen. But most apps were available for those who wanted them.

BlackBerry phones had become low-end priced due to these issues, but it is NOT because they are low-end phones.

I hope this new phone gets some attention. I will be getting one when I can afford it but if it gets made in BlackBerry 10 as well thats the one I would really want.

By riptide355 on 11/4/2015 12:20:48 PM , Rating: 2
If you have Parkinson's (2 million people in the US) this phone is a dream come true. An Android Smartphone with a hardware keyboard. No more double tapping and backspacing (and then double tapping the backspace).

Thank you Blackberry for making a phone for this select group (even though I doubt you knew it). Mine is pre-ordered.

“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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