Anti-surveillance Blackphone handset starts shipping

Blackphone, the first consumer-grade handset explicitly marketed as a privacy guardian, has begun shipping.

Revealed at the start of this year, Blackphone runs a fork of Android(s goog) called PrivatOS and comes bundled with a variety of security-centric tools and subscriptions, including Silent Phone and Silent Text (for normal voice, video and text communications), Disconnect (VPN and search), SpiderOak (cloud storage) and the Smarter Wi-Fi Manager (for protection from dodgy hotspots).

Shipping forecast

According to Toby Weir-Jones, CEO of recently funded Blackphone company SGP Technologies, the first units of the $629 handset to ship are for European LTE users, and U.S. units will follow. In both cases, preorder production runs come first, then units for those who have not already ordered the device.

Weir-Jones said the preordering process had not required people to say a lot about themselves, but it appeared that most preorders came from individuals rather than companies. About 58 percent of orders came from Europe, followed by the U.S., then Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and Africa.

“European carriers are the most progressive in terms of exploring how to take advantage of this as a commercial opportunity,” Weir-Jones added, pointing to KPN’s stocking of the handset. As he explained, SGP is selling the Blackphone to carriers at a “distributor-type price point,” unlike the “big players” who force carriers to pay close to retail price for their devices. It’s also touting the fact that customers will probably be frequent upgraders and high-margin data plan users.

Weir-Jones also noted that customers will enjoy frequent firmware updates, with over-the-air updates coming from Blackphone/SGP, not the carrier. This is necessary from a security standpoint if nothing else: “We’re not committing to a rigid schedule, because there will always be exceptions, but… I’d be surprised if a month went by without an update. In general, assume an average of every three weeks.”

Good start?

The first review of the Blackphone, over on Ars Technica, is pretty positive. As reviewer Sean Gallagher wrote:

“We found that Blackphone lives up to its privacy hype. During our testing in a number of scenarios, there was little if any data leakage that would give any third-party observer anything usable in terms of private information. As far as its functionality as a consumer device goes, Blackphone still has a few rough edges.”

That sounds like a good start, and I’m looking forward to playing around with a sample soon in order to form my own opinion of the Blackphone’s viability. Many security tools are out there, but using them isn’t simple enough, and the world needs products that package these tools in a user-friendly way.

Weir-Jones said the firm was already working on a “family of products” that will include a tablet and other phones. He said that, as a company that’s catering to “a niche that is very knowledgeable and has high expectations, but is also very interested in staying current,” SGP was particularly excited about upending “current commercial models for how platform ecosystems work in mobility.”

That’s an interesting aspect to keep an eye on: after all, this is a small player forking Android and therefore forgoing the Play Store in favor of a new ecosystem of privacy-centric service providers. If it targets its niche well, it could demonstrate the viability of surviving in the mobile manufacturer business without being Samsung or Apple(s aapl).

“I’m comfortable with our Version 1 product and we’ve done a good job bringing it to market,” Weir-Jones said. “The feedback will inform our roadmap, and I’m interested to see what features they demand and hear stories about how they use the phone.”