BlackBerry on Dec. 17 formally released its latest hopeful attempt to stem the flow of customers to rival devices makers by introducing a thoroughly new phone that looks very much the company’s last successful mobile phone model, the much-loved BlackBerry Bold 9900. While the new BlackBerry Classic isn’t a copy of the Bold 9900, it looks and is said to feel a lot like one.
The goal, according to CEO John Chen, is to bring back a totally business focused device designed specifically for the needs of its most loyal users. The BlackBerry Classic includes a keyboard, physical navigation keys and long battery life. Deep down inside, however, the new BlackBerry runs the QNX-based BBOS10, which among other things, can run many Android apps.
After introducing the phone, Chen also said to a Bloomberg reporter that he’d welcome another effort to return to the way things were done in the past by getting back together with former partner T-Mobile.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said during a media Q&A session on Dec. 16 that he was very interested in reestablishing relations with BlackBerry as part of his company’s nascent effort to focus on small- and medium-sized business as part of a future “Uncarrier” announcement. Previously, BlackBerry had dumped T-Mobileafter the carrier had sent its users a pitch in favor of the iPhone.
Things have changed since the T-Mobile debacle, however. Now T-Mobile needs to bring in more business users so that it can continue its rapid growth and BlackBerry needs to attract all the potential buyers it can find, including T-Mobile business users.
To accomplish this, BlackBerry needed to determine what loyal users liked best about their phones, and then find a way to deliver that. By doing so, the company hoped to keep its existing user base, while also drawing back users who had shifted to other makers’ phones after BlackBerry released its touch screen-only Z10 and Z30 smartphones.
While the BlackBerry lineup included the slow-selling Q10 phone, that device did not include the physical navigation keys that users loved. For that matter neither did the more recently announced BlackBerry Passport.
The Classic might bring feelings of nostalgia to the BlackBerry faithful. The new phone has the sculpted physical keyboard that users remember and the virtual navigation keys on the Q10 and Passport are back to being physical keys. Like the keyboard on the Bold 9900, each row of keys is separated by a stainless steel fret that’s designed to ease typing.
BlackBerry Classic Harks Back to Bold 9900 to Lure Business Loyalists
While the appearance of the Classic harkens back to earlier models, it’s by no means an old design. The 3.5-inch square screen is 60 percent larger than on the Bold. According to BlackBerry’s product and brand marketing head Jeff Gadway, the screen area is about the same as what’s on the iPhone 6 when it’s displaying the virtual keyboard displayed. The case, Gadway said, is machined out of a solid block of stainless steel.
BlackBerry has also reemphasized its long-held position as a secure communications device, announcing a Secure Productivity Bundle and an Enterprise Communications Bundle. These are being marketed along with the Classic, but are actually available for all of the BlackBerry BBOS10 devices. In addition, some features of the bundles will be available for iOS and Android devices.
As has been the case with other recent BlackBerry device announcements, including the Passport, the Classic is shipping with access to the Amazon Appstore as well as BlackBerry World. The Amazon store includes a large number of Android apps, many of which will work in the BlackBerry QNX environment. While specifics weren’t available at the announcement, BlackBerry executives seemed to indicate that the number of apps available for use on BlackBerry devices had grown considerably.
In addition, a number of Web applications, such as the Uber web app, will be available as icons in the Amazon store that will connect the device directly to the Uber ride service mobile site. It’s not exactly an app, but it should work like one. Amazon is also providing an Amazon shopping app and an Amazon Fresh app. The BlackBerry World store is also expanding its offerings for enterprise software users.
Of course the obvious question is whether this will work to reverse BlackBerry’s fortunes. Right now the answer to that isn’t clear. A great deal will depend on just how good the BlackBerry Classic is in bringing back the feel of the Bold that loyal users love, while also moving BlackBerry into the more modern world of business-friendly apps.
BlackBerry’s success also depends on how and where the Classic is available. AT&T and Verizon planning to carry the Classic in the U.S. as are other carriers in Canada and elsewhere around the world. But offering the device and selling the device are different things.
The Classic needs to spur demand and the carriers that sell the Classic need to make it available with terms that are at least as friendly as its Android and iOS competition. Whether that happens still remains to be seen.