JUST when you think it’s left the building, BlackBerry bounds back onto the stage of global significance.
A few weeks ago, it botched the long-awaited release onto Androids phones of its wildly popular instant messaging (IM) app, Blackberry Messenger (BBM). An unauthorised and unusable early version was inadvertently leaked, and made its way into the Google Play Store that serves Android phones.
As if that weren’t bad enough, several fake apps masquerading as BBM were allowed to sneak into the Play Store.
BlackBerry cancelled the global roll-out, and announced that BBM would be released country by country. However, it wouldn’t provide release dates.
The consensus was quick: so much for the Plan B option of surviving as a software company.
But if there has been one area where BlackBerry has continued to excel, it’s BBM. Aside from being one of the most visually appealing IM apps, it has also led the way in integration of voice and video calls within an app.
When BBM finally landed on Android and Apple’s iOS, that appeal translated into 10-million downloads on the first day, and 20-million in the first week. Bearing in mind that the BlackBerry global user base fell from a high of 79-million at the end of last December to 72-million in June, and that only 60-million of those were using BBM, it represented a massive lifeline.
In just a week, BBM had grown by a third, up to 80-million users, and may already have passed the 100-million mark.
If BlackBerry can figure out how to make money from BBM, it could almost afford to dump hardware plans and focus only on software.
The new version 10 of its BlackBerry Enterprise Service, which allows any smartphone or tablet to connect to BlackBerry’s legendary security architecture, is being used by 25,000 large enterprises worldwide.
In the US, most of Fortune 500 companies have installed it.
But, for now, BlackBerry still thinks it can make compelling hardware. This week, it began showing off its new flagship, the Z30, to South Africa media. And it appears to have got it right.
While the earlier Z10 had been an adequate phone, it didn’t compare to the flagship phones of rivals. The display size alone, a mere 4.2 inches, showed that it had missed that particular demand curve. By contrast, the Z30 has a 5-inch screen with a sharp Super AMOLED display, indistinguishable in quality from its high-end competitors. A heavyweight 2880 mAh battery extends talk time from 11 hours to 18 hours, leaving other flagships in the dust.
A new version of the BlackBerry operating system, 10.2, means full access to messaging applications from within the phone’s message hub, along with a range of hardware and software enhancements that suggest it has listened to users’ grumbles.
Will the phone catch on? Not if that was the only thing BlackBerry was pitching.
But consider this: in the past week, BBM was the second-most downloaded app in the iStore in the US, UK, Canada and France. That means dismissive iPhone users are trying out a BlackBerry product, many for the first time.
Soon, BBM will also introduce Channels, allowing chat communication with groups of any size. That’s a feature missing from other IM apps, and it means companies can use BBM as a mass-marketing tool, much in the way they use SMS for broadcast messaging.
No wonder BlackBerry is in no hurry to say goodbye.
• Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times