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It’s too early to know whether BlackBerry’s Android Priv smartphone will save the company’s hardware division, but the few crumbs of evidence we’ve seen so far are encouraging. And the first victim of this potential success will be the company’s in-house platform, BlackBerry 10.
Until the start of this week, I wasn’t sure if that would be the case. The company has taken great care to assure the millions of loyal fans who have sworn by BB10 – even if the mass market consumer hasn’t – that their mobile operating system is alive and well and that it was not abandoned.
Last year, BlackBerry went out of its way to note Priv’s original announcement with another seemingly unrelated piece of its roadmap for a future upgrade to BB10.
But in an interview at CES, CEO John Chen said something That changed everything: In response to a series of questions from CNET, he acknowledged that the company only plans to release Android hardware for the remainder of 2016 (not by much, however, just one or two phones).
When pressed by CNET on whether this meant the end of BB10, Chen responded in a way that simultaneously gave some fans new hope, while convincing others that their worst fears had come true. .
According to CNET,
Chen is also hoping the Priv will help improve the viability of the business, fix the brand, and potentially help produce another phone running BlackBerry 10 – though he said it was too early to talk about those plans. .
At first glance, this statement sounds optimistic: A successful Android experience could also breathe new life into the BlackBerry OS. But put under the microscope, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where such a series of events could actually happen.
An unlikely savior
BlackBerry 10, while beloved by die-hard fans of the company, hasn’t helped the company’s fortunes. The graph below shows how BlackBerry performed when BB10 was the only platform available to consumers. The results were not only poor, they keep getting worse.
Do we really believe that once the company finds a winner in Android, after so many years in the wilderness, it will again start making the exact same type of devices that drove the hardware division to the brink of collapse? extinction in the first place?
There are undoubtedly supporters of the BB10 within the company who would love to develop new QNX powered handsets, just as some fans would love to buy them. However, it defies business logic that a for-profit business would be willing to divert resources from a profitable business to a historically unprofitable business.
A debacle of applications
Leveraging Android’s success to support BB10 just isn’t a realistic path, and in fact I would say BlackBerry is somewhat irresponsible in making fans feel like it could be.
One of the main issues cited repeatedly by business executives and cell phone owners is the lack of a healthy BB10 app ecosystem. In fact, Chen sparked a bit of controversy in early 2015 by launching an open appeal to the so-called application neutrality, the pretty far-fetched idea that developers should be required to make sure their software is compatible with all major platforms.
As if the app situation weren’t bad enough, now that developers know 2016 will be devoid of any new BlackBerry 10 hardware, what do you think their reaction will be? Will they continue to develop new apps and continue to support and update existing titles?
Certainly not. In revealing 2016’s focus on Android and Android only, Chen telegraphed a very clear message to the remaining BB10 development community: don’t waste your time here. Use your talents to develop products for platforms of the future. We will call you back in 2017 (or beyond) if we need you.
But that last bit just isn’t going to happen; mobile platforms aren’t well suited for cold storage – you can’t cryogenically freeze your operating system and expect to resurrect it at a later date. Once the door is closed, it is impossible to reopen it.
The fan puzzle
So what should a BlackBerry fan do? I did a (decidedly unscientific) Twitter poll to try and get a better feel for the fan community. The good news for BlackBerry is that the overwhelming majority of voters seem to care more about the company than its platform: more than two-thirds of those polled would rather see a healthy Android hardware division rather than no whole new device, point.
[POLL] BlackBerry fans: which of these scenarios do you prefer for the future of the hardware division?
– Evan Blass (@evleaks) Jan. 7, 2016
However, this minority of a third is not negligible. These are people who will probably never buy an Android device from BlackBerry; for all intents and purposes, these are lost customers. Worse, they leave the herd with a bad taste in their mouths, and probably don’t hesitate to express their displeasure. Once the biggest BlackBerry OS fans, it’s pretty easy to watch this demographic turn into the most outspoken critics of the company.
It’s not a good situation if you’re BlackBerry, but I think at some point the company owes its fans and supporters a bit of closure on the fate of BB10. Instead of filling some people with false hope and others with exasperation, while confusing the market, he needs to internally formulate an honest assessment of the current state of BB10, clearly communicating the result to his fan base.
There are plenty of developers out there who have devoted some of the best years of their mobile life to an ever-evolving platform. The current ambiguity is doing them a disservice, and in the long run, I think even the most disappointed BB10 enthusiasts will respect BlackBerry a lot more for proactively providing a candid, unsweetened briefing on what to expect.
While this article was in press, John Chen accidentally posted an article on the Inside BlackBerry blog titled “Showing our commitment to BlackBerry 10 at CES 2016. “In what has become something of a model, Chen discusses upcoming updates to the dot version for BB10 (10.3.3 and 10.3.4) as proof that the company has not abandoned its customers.
But again, missing from this – and other BB10 status reports – is any indication of the hardware side of the equation, a critical piece of the puzzle for fans and developers alike. After the roller coaster ride they’ve been through, they deserve better.
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