BlackBerry more or less invented the smartphone at the turn of the century, and in an era of doing everything by email, its miniature physical keyboard became the plaything du jour of businessmen and presidents alike.
Those early BlackBerries also offered a secure messaging service between users – but since that was compromised by a worldwide outage in 2011, the firm’s fortunes have been in decline.
The Priv, which landed at your local Carphone Warehouse yesterday, is BlackBerry’s last throw of the dice. It has abandoned its previous operating system, beloved by no-one, and instead thrown its lot in with Google’s Android. This means it’s the same as phones by Samsung, Sony, HTC and others, but with the addition of that physical keyboard and those secure messages.
The keyboard this time is in a slide-out drawer, a little like the ones you get on upmarket remote controls, and the secure messages come via an Android app developed by BlackBerry.
Both of those features command a hefty price – £580 to buy the phone outright or £49 a month on a two-year contract. That’s more expensive than Apple’s iPhone 6s and the Samsung Galaxy S6 – so you’ve got to be pretty insistent about wanting that keyboard.
The seamlessness of the integration is also open to question: at a public launch event for the Priv, BlackBerry’s own CEO could barely open a simple search app.
Nevertheless, the newcomer is an appealing proposition for die-hard BlackBerry users and for those who have never taken to the on-screen keyboards of Apple and regular Android devices. BlackBerry’s promise of a longer-lasting battery (from an admittedly low base) may also win it a few admirers.
The Priv sports a Samsung-style curved screen measuring 5.4 inches, with a high-definition display, 32GB of expandable storage and a decently-specified rear camera.
But it’s worth remembering that if you’re not procuring your next phone through your business account, you can get most of those features on the newest version of Motorola’s Moto G handset, for less than £170. The Moto’s front camera actually out-specs the new BlackBerry, which makes it a better bet if you’ve embraced the current vogue for taking pictures of yourself.
There’s little doubt the Priv could have been a market-killer had it appeared a few years ago. As things stand, the smartphone ship has sailed, with BlackBerry waving it away from the dockside.
The company needs, by its own reckoning, to shift five million phones a year to stay in the handset business, and at the moment it’s not even close, with a market share estimated at 0.3 per cent. It does, however (thanks to its purchase of the Canadian company QNX Systems) have a significant chunk of the emerging in-car telecommunications market, with Ford adopting its technology in preference to Microsoft’s.
So, if the idea of an expensive pull-out keyboard on your phone doesn’t appeal, wait and see if your next car comes with one instead.