A decade ago, consumers faced a three-way choice between mobile handsets.
There were Apple devices, Android phones and BlackBerry handsets, with the latter much loved by professionals.
In an age when push notifications and synchronised email accounts seemed revolutionary, BlackBerry held a third of the UK smartphone OS market as recently as 2011.
Today, we take these technological advances for granted, since they’re available on everything from Kindles to iPads.
And as its USP eroded, BlackBerry entered what appeared to be a terminal decline.
The release of the new BlackBerry Key2 is highly significant, since it could be the company’s last chance to restore some credibility after a disastrous decade.
What went wrong for BlackBerry?
Before we consider the new handset’s merits, it’s important to highlight why its release may prove make-or-break for BlackBerry’s owners, Research In Motion (RIM).
Recent research by Gartner indicated BlackBerry OS’s market share dropped to 0.048 per cent in February.
Technically, that meant Blackberry OS comprised 0.0 per cent of the smartphone market, with newer handsets being powered by Android – yet still proving unpopular.
A number of factors have played a part in the brand’s decline, but key reasons include:
- The BlackBerry OS was far less user-friendly than Apple’s iOS or Android’s constantly-evolving operating system, deterring casual users
- RIM failed to engage with app developers, and BlackBerry’s app store was a pale imitation of its rivals – featuring few of the leisure apps Apple was so quick to embrace
- Handsets were evolutionary rather than revolutionary, lacking the wow-factor of new competitors and failing to offer sufficient innovations to justify upgrading
- By focusing on the business sector, BlackBerry failed to recognise employees wanted to use their own devices at work. Company-wide handset deals quickly fell from favour
- The unwillingness to abandon physical keyboards meant BlackBerry devices looked dated, in an age when tapping on a smartphone screen was universally accepted
BlackBerry also went through a protracted series of boardroom struggles, which rightly contributed to the sense of a company lacking a long-term plan.
This led to a three-year delay in the desperately-needed BlackBerry 10 OS, by which point the software – and the hardware it was running on – seemed dated and unappealing.
As the brand withered, customers quietly migrated elsewhere.
Has the new BlackBerry Key2 learned from these mistakes?
There are signs BlackBerry has finally launched a product addressing contemporary consumer concerns, rather than endlessly finding itself behind the curve.
A claimed two-day battery life gives the Key2 a critical advantage over power-hungry rivals, and even the smallest model offers 64GB of storage, with up to 128GB available.
Crucially, the Key2 uses Android’s highly acclaimed Oreo operating system, rather than the older versions deployed in previous BlackBerry handsets.
The Key2 is a tactile and aesthetically pleasing device, constructed out of robust aluminium alloy and Gorilla Glass with a non-slip back.
That should give it some pulling power in mobile phone stores, where its RRP is a competitive £579.
The 3:2 screen ratio represents a major departure from the 18.5:9 ratios seen on other devices, but this resolution is better suited to webpages and business apps.
And speaking of apps, one natty feature on the Key2 consolidates all incoming messages into a single Hub – great for anyone with multiple email accounts and social networks to monitor.
Users can also assign shortcuts to individual letters in tandem with a dedicated shift key – so pressing the shift key and T could be programmed to launch Twitter.
Given today’s security concerns, the ability to hide certain apps (and their contents) until they’re unlocked by a fingerprint or password looks like a timely addition.
So what’s the verdict?
The BlackBerry Key2 might not persuade iPhone users to trade in their handsets, but it’s a tactile and flexible device whose limited CPU at least explains its competitive RRP.
The abolition of on-screen keys frees the screen for other roles, and many people will find tapping the responsive QWERTY keyboard easier for writing documents or long messages.
You won’t need to choose between charging it and using headphones, while the twin cameras and HD speakers are comparable with hardware specs in other similarly-priced handsets.
Now BlackBerry is just a hardware manufacturer, the inclusion of Android expands its appeal to half the UK market – even if everyone else remains contentedly enmeshed in Apple’s iOS platform.
The Key2 isn’t a revolutionary handset, then. But it is the first BlackBerry phone for many years that’s worth considering.