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Smartphone Systems: BlackBerry

A guide to BlackBerry OS based mobile devices and smartphones

BlackBerry Logo

BlackBerry

The BlackBerry brand is one of the most well known and recognisable brands in the mobile market, right next to Apple’s iPhone series.

The BlackBerry OS and the devices running it are all produced by the Canadian company of the same name, who until an announcement in January 2013 were known as RIM (Research In Motion).

Over the years RIM phones have proven popular with all types of users, originating with business and capturing a younger demographic internationally a few years ago through their secure & free (to other BlackBerry users) BlackBerry Messenger service.

BlackBerry hoped to continue to build on this previous success following their rebranding and change of direction in 2013, however, due to some high-profile losses, which were attributed to lower than expected sales; upper management was changed and the intention to sell the company (and possibly break it into constituent assets) was made public.

The name RIM was dropped and BlackBerry have continued with a streamlined range of smartphones in the consumer space, whilst maximising their opportunities in the enterprise world where they remain highly respected.

The BlackBerry 10 OS has powered several devices since 2013, including the all-touch Z10, Z30 and keyboard controlled Q10, Classic and Passport.

BlackBerry launched the Priv in late 2015. Powered by a modified version of Android Lollipop, this is their first consumer device to run an operating system not solely designed in house.

History

BlackBerry and RIM became well known in the early 2000’s by focussing on ‘push’ email – this allowed owners of BlackBerrys to receive their emails directly to their phone via the cellular networks. This is now a commonplace feature, however, was a revolution at the time.

RIM also developed BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), a highly secure service to synchronise devices with commonly used email clients in business environments. With companies integrating BES into their IT systems, BlackBerrys became the phone of choice for a generation of professionals and businesses with security in mind.

Since the launch of the iPhone and popularisation of smartphones, business-style performance has become standardised and even expected from consumer devices. BlackBerry was slow to respond to these changes in the consumer market and lost some traction.

BlackBerry is still popular in some professional circles due to the level of security that is offered and in some cases relied upon in wider systems that utilise BES, however, iPhone and to some extent Windows Phone have taken some of this core strength away.

Although the BlackBerry operating system remains highly capable, secure and stable, BlackBerry devices have currently not done so well in the consumer market when compared to Apple and major Android releases.

Cheaper BlackBerry units traditionally sold very well with a younger demographic, mostly due to BlackBerry Messenger or BBM. This was a BlackBerry specific service that allowed BlackBerry users to message each other for free, circumventing the costs of SMS messaging imposed by carriers. Again, however, this feature has lost ground, mostly due to the rise of cross-platform messaging services such as Skype, Whatsapp, Line & Facebook Messenger that utilise an Internet connection to send messages.

Traditionally all BlackBerrys featured a QWERTY keyboard that is optimised for use with both thumbs - the standard design is a take on the ‘candy bar’ shape and is very recognisable. OS versions of the past have been designed primarily to work with the standard candy bar type handsets; optimised to work with a trackball/trackpad that sits under the screen. However, versions numbered 7.x also featured extensive support for touchscreen input and most devices of this era came with a touchscreen.

BlackBerry 10

BlackBerry 10 (BB10) was a complete redesign of the BlackBerry operating system (numbered up to 7 at the time of writing). BlackBerry acquired software company QNX in 2010 and put to use their code in designing BlackBerry Tablet OS for the BlackBerry PlayBook range. This was the basis for BlackBerry 10 which, according to BlackBerry, does not contain a single line of legacy code from the old versions.

The first device to run BB10 was the BlackBerry Z10, released in February 2013 as the first BlackBerry device not to feature a physical keyboard. A physical keyboard is available on the sister phone, the Q10 and also the entry level Q5. BB10 will now be the de facto operating system for all BlackBerry devices; updates will continue throughout the BB10 lifecycle until the next major revision of the OS.

As of 2015, BB10 is powering the BlackBerry Classic (styled after traditional BlackBerry phones with a physical keyboard) and the BlackBerry Passport, a phone with a unique form factor, large screen and touch enabled physical keyboard.

BlackBerry Android

Despite decent review scores, the BB10 devices did not sell well enough globally. Many have attributed this to a massive rise in popularity of Android and iOs products before BlackBerry modernised their system.

BlackBerry decided to look at utilising Android. Initially the BB10 system could emulate Android apps, however, this did not hugely increase interest.

Eventually, BlackBerry decided to manufacture a device that was based completely on Android. The BlackBerry PRIV (standing for Privacy & Privilege), incorporated a sliding design to hide a physical keyboard, alongside a full-touch screen. BlackBerry kept the interface fairly standard, although heavily modified the core Android code to improve security.

The PRIV sold well, but not enough to completely save BlackBerry's manufacturing. In 2016, they gave the rights BlackBerry branded hardware to TCL, a Chinese manufacturer known for developing the Alcatel brand of smartphones. BlackBerry though still had full control over the software running on the devices.

The first phones launched under the TCL arm were the DTEK50 and DTEK60 in 2016. These were touchscreen only devices. They sold moderately well, praised as the most modern 'BlackBerry' devices to date, although somewhat lost in a market of similar handsets from other manufacturers.

Early 2017 saw the launch of the KEYone. This device reclaimed the original physical keyboard alongside a large touchscreen with a unique aspect ratio. The KEYone was widely regarded as having a very successful launch and reigniting conversations about the BlackBerry brand and its place in mobile.

Applications

BlackBerry World is the updated application distribution service for BlackBerry devices since 2013. The store is available to access on all new devices running BlackBerry 10 and access is preloaded as an app on new handsets. BlackBerry have stated that at the launch of BB10 there were over 70,000 available applications.

BlackBerry World has now also diversified into providing music, magazine and book services which were not previously available in older versions.

Despite this, BlackBerry has found it difficult to entice developers of popular applications on Android and iOS onto their system.

An update to BB10 (10.3), officially allowed the 'sideloading' of a number of Android apps on a BB10 handset. Android apps can be installed from their original .apk (androidpackage) file structure and run inside an Android emulator within BB10. Data created from the Android apps can be shared with BB10. Some critics have stated that there is a noticeable performance hit the makes sideloaded Android apps run slower on BB10 and also a noticeable degradation to the daily battery life.

The same update also allowed for the Amazon Appstore to be loaded on BB10 devices (rather than Google's Play Store for Android phones). Android applications can be downloaded and installed directly through the Amazon Appstore.

Versions

RIM was traditionally seen as very competent at releasing new versions of the BlackBerry OS that provided relevant improvements and also providing upgrades to users with an older version.

Legacy BlackBerry OS version numbers go up to 7, found on some devices released in 2011 and all those released through 2012. Few older OS 6 devices can be upgraded to 7. The original BlackBerry PlayBook range used "BlackBerry Tablet OS", built from code obtained by the acquisition of software company QNX. This was the basis for the development of BlackBerry 10.

BlackBerry 10 was seen as a major transition and almost a complete change in style that the BlackBerry OS required in order to remain relevant in the modern industry and be seen as a competitor to Apple, Android and Windows Phone in the consumer space.

Updates to BlackBerry 10 include:

  • BlackBerry Hub - a centrepiece for all notifications including SMS messages, calls, and synchronised email and social media accounts
  • BlackBerry Browser - a completely new Web Browser with excellent HTML5 compliance
  • BlackBerry Keyboard - a brand new software keyboard with predictive typing
  • BlackBerry Balance - separating work settings from personal settings
  • BlackBerry Camera with Time Shift - burst imaging that can scroll through images to replace/change features

Legacy devices running versions 7 and below cannot be upgraded to BB10.

Legacy version numbers and supported devices

5.0 BlackBerry Bold 9000, BlackBerry Storm, BlackBerry Storm 2, BlackBerry Tour

6.0 BlackBerry Bold 9650/9700/9780, BlackBerry Curve 9300/9330, BlackBerry Pearl 9100, BlackBerry Style 9670, BlackBerry Torch 9800

7.0/1 BlackBerry Bold 9790/9900/9930, BlackBerry Curve 9350/9360/9370/9380/9220/9320, BlackBerry Torch 9810/9850/9860, BlackBerry 9720.

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