This morning, as we prepared for what turned out to be a pretty solid installment of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, a leaked image hit our feeds that suddenly sent us scrambling to update the rundown. It was the press render seen above, featuring a dramatic view of a sleek new BlackBerry handset with front-firing speakers, a curved glass display … and Android as an operating system.
Sure, we’d heard rumblings about such a thing before, but today’s leak put a name to the rumors (“BlackBerry Venice”) and a face to the specs (a Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 5.4-inch Quad HD display). And while it’s not evident from the above shot, this handheld would seem to be a vertical slider with a physical keyboard.
Assuming this is authentic stuff –and putting aside the fact that it would have been awesome to see this kind of thing from BlackBerry years ago– here’s why I think an Android BlackBerry could be a very compelling smartphone indeed.
BlackBerry still does incredibly good hardware
The above photo is from my video review of the BlackBerry Classic, a phone whose fit and finish continue to blow me away even six months later. While I never thought the Classic was a particularly strong strategy for a company struggling to claw its way back to relevance, I continue to be hugely impressed by the phone’s build quality. Everything from its metal midplate to its heavy rubber cladding to its clicky side keys feels fantastic in the hand, recalling the very best aspects of the Bold brand that propped BlackBerry up as its popularity started to wane.
Then there’s the BlackBerry Passport, which we unboxed and used for a platform comparison earlier this season. While overall I think the Passport is a failure on a number of levels, the hardware execution isn’t one of them; the Passport boasts as high-quality a feel in hand as the Classic, and it packs some innovative features to boot. Of all the reasons not to carry a BlackBerry in 2015, hardware isn’t one of them.
Physical keyboard lovers would have a home again
The smartphone QWERTY keyboard was already well on its way to an early grave when I wrote a piece a while back bemoaning its extinction. These days it’s all but vanished, the world having learned to live with the fact that typing on glass is indeed the future. And personally, I’m glad of it: I, along with most of the people I know, am much faster on a virtual keyboard than a physical one.
But there remain thousands who prefer a more tactile feel. Whether they’re older, in a specialized job that eschews touchscreens, or just particularly intolerant of change, these folks really need their physical QWERTY thumbboards. Today, that means they’re stuck either snapping up an accessory like the Typo, settling for a midrange or out-of-date handset with an underwhelming keyboard, or learning to live with the limitations of BlackBerry’s own software platform in exchange for the excellent physical typing experience. An Android BlackBerry would give these people the best of both worlds.
Also, it would elevate Android’s game a little. For example …
BlackBerry still does notifications better than anyone else
Android ushered in a notification revolution when it hit the scene in 2008. Pulling down a persistent “drawer” to access waiting alerts was a revelation then, and its practicality eventually led to both Apple and Microsoft adopting Android’s approach for their own mobile platforms.
But when BlackBerry took the wraps off BB10 in the winter of 2013, it brought something new to the table. The BlackBerry Hub was an expansion of the company’s earlier “unified inbox” approach, collecting all notifications in a single list and sorting them by time. Using a simple swipe gesture on the new BlackBerry phones, users could “peek” at the waiting notifications without leaving the app they were in; reversing the gesture closed the peek, while extending it to completion opened the Hub entirely. Best of all, rather than being placed out of reach at the top of the screen, the BlackBerry Hub occupied a permanent position to the left of the homescreen (much as Google Now does on the current crop of Nexus phones) and was triggered by swiping up from the bottom of the display. Even today, it’s much more comfortable for me to check notifications on a modern BlackBerry than any other smartphone.
Smartphones could use some disruption
The notification shade isn’t the only thing that’s stayed relatively static in the smartphone world. Over the past few years, handhelds have congealed into a fairly uniform assortment of vertical slabs, each successive model bigger but not always more interesting than the last. With few exceptions, there’s little of the daring innovation that came before, boldness having given way to risk-avoidance as profits dwindle and competition increases.
In this ever-calming sea of sameness, BlackBerry has often served as a welcome diversion. Granted, the company had almost nothing to lose after its thunderous fall from grace, so its willingness to try new things is understandable … but in throwing spaghetti at the wall, the company got a surprising number of things to stick. The Passport, while an ergonomic nightmare, managed to squeeze even more utility from its physical keyboard by also turning it into a touch-sensitive trackpad/scroll bar that worked very well. The BlackBerry Bridge software allowed users to divide their phones in two: one for work, and one for personal use. The famous BlackBerry Messenger service transitioned from a lock-in tool to a multi-platform messaging solution. The BlackBerry camera viewfinder was really good at suggesting when to enable (and disable) accessory modes like HDR. And BB10’s ability to let apps run in full, even when minimized, was a great boon to serial YouTubers like myself, for whom the BlackBerry offered a multitasking experience unrivaled anywhere else.
If the Android BlackBerry hits the market as a pure hardware play running bone-stock Lollipop (or M), many people, tired of manufacturer skins mucking up their experience, will rejoice. But if even a handful of these innovations make it into Venice without doping up the UI too much (think Motorola’s Moto X skin), it would be an Android superphone to be reckoned with. Not to mention …
It could be a first-of-its-kind resurrection
Think of how many mobile companies have hit a point as low as BlackBerry without being acquired, disbanded or both. There aren’t many. Palm (whose webOS platform provided inspiration for many of the features that later found their way to BB10) was acquired by HP before infamously getting Old Yellered. Nokia’s mobile division almost bottomed out before being acquired by Microsoft (and then losing much of its talent in the acquisition). Motorola was picked up by Google and then by Lenovo, with the fallout still uncertain. Meanwhile BlackBerry tumbled from the world’s top smartphone maker to a burned-out shell of its former self – but it’s still kicking out new products under the same venerable brand, still independent of any would-be purchaser.
The cynical person might speculate that that fact owes more to BlackBerry’s inability to find a suitor than its steadfast resolve, but that’s a debate I’ll leave to better-informed fans down in the comments. I’ll just say that an Android BlackBerry done right could potentially do more for the company than the last three generations of BlackBerry products combined. At the risk of sounding naive, it could be the product that pulls the company back from the brink of failure and vaults it back to legitimacy – and at the risk of sounding sappy, I think that’s something we’d all love to see.
Michael Fisher’s first smartphone was a BlackBerry 7520, which he sometimes talks about on Twitter. More recently, he’s re-reviewed Google’s Nexus 6 and talked smack to people who hate smartwatches, and he can also be heard (nearly) every week on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast.