The BlackBerry Classic is an explicit appeal to nostalgia

BlackBerry officially launched the BlackBerry Classic at an event in New York’s financial district on Wednesday. It’s the first new BlackBerry device since 2011 to actually resemble what most people think of when they think “BlackBerry”: A QWERTY keyboard-equipped phone with physical navigation keys, including a touch trackpad.


Obviously, the BlackBerry Classic is a niche device — no matter how many celebrities claim they can’t live without theirs. BlackBerry spent a lot of time comparing the Classic to the Bold 9900, which came out in 2011. That’s the target audience for the Classic — companies that issue BlackBerries to their employees because of security reasons and are still hanging on to aging Bolds (running BlackBerry’s previous operating system.)

Because many people upgrading to the BlackBerry Classic are coming from years-old devices, the specs aren’t paramount, but they still pack a few nice upgrades. The Classic has a 720×720-pixel, 3.5-inch touchscreen and an 8 MP camera on the back. It will be able to tap into speedy LTE networks and it’s powered by a Qualcomm chip. The specs are generally inferior to those of the Blackberry Passport, the company’s new flagship device, which has an unusual square body.

In the United States, both AT&T and[company]Verizon[/company] have said they’ll carry the BlackBerry Classic, but the carriers haven’t offered details on when or how much it will cost. You can buy an unlocked BlackBerry Classic that works on [company]AT&T[/company]and [company]T-Mobile[/company] for $449 from BlackBerry World.

BlackBerry 10.3.1 is a pretty big upgrade from the operating system on the Bold 9900. It’s optimized for touch, has a modern browser, and, perhaps most importantly, it can run Android apps from the Amazon Appstore as well as native BlackBerry apps from BlackBerry World.

In the middle of the launch presentation, [company]BlackBerry[/company] discussed Brickbreaker, a game on the Classic that was notoriously pre-installed on all BlackBerrys during the company’s glory years. It was an appeal to former BlackBerry users who remember killing hours playing the Breakout clone, which takes advantage of the Classic’s new (and old) trackpad. But you don’t see Nokia or Microsoft talking about Snake when launching a new Lumia. Perhaps appealing to nostalgia is not the best way to get traction in the fast-moving mobile world.

More restructuring for Blackberry: QNX, Project Ion, and crypto software combined into new business unit

It’s been a year full of tumult for Blackberry since CEO John Chen took over the company last November, but there’s at least one more shake-up in store: Blackberry announced Monday that it is creating a new business unit consisting of its most promising technologies. The Blackberry Technology unit will house QNX, Blackberry’s embedded OS, Project Ion, its foray into the Internet of Things, its cryptography software, and 44,000 patents. It will be headed by former Sony-Ericsson CTO Sandeep Chennakeshu. The reorganization could be the first step to reopening talks to sell off parts of the business.

BlackBerry posts massive loss, new hires, good numbers on iOS and Android

The news from BlackBerry is coming so fast and furious it’s hard to keep abreast of it. It’s mostly looking like freefall.

In advance of the 3rd quarter results — and hinting at the news — Rick Costanzo, executive vice-president of global sales, and Chris Wormald, vice- president of strategic alliances, fled the company, presumably to avoid the knife. BlackBerry’s director of global public policy, Mark Cameron, has announced he is joining Hill + Knowlton Strategies Canada as a practice leader. These join Frank Boulben and Kristian Tear who were sacked following John Chen’s taking over as interim CEO in November (see Blackberry’s Chen is pushing hard to turn the company around).

Chen has tapped new talent to try to recover: John Sims will join BlackBerry as head of its global enterprise services business, leaving SAP where he serves as president of the company’s mobile services business. Chan also tapped two of his former colleagues from SAP and Sybase: James Mackey will become executive vice president for corporate development and strategic planning. He led corporate development at SAP where he worked with Chen. Mark Wilson was named senior vice president of marketing, after leading marketing at Avaya, after working for many years at Sybase.

And then this morning, the quarterly results. Ka-boom.

A massive $4.4 billion quarterly loss, largely as a result of a huge write-down of assets, inventory, supply commitments, and a previously announced restructing. Chen is trying to get as much of the mess behind him, all at once. But there is systemically bad news and good news in there too. First, 1.9 million handset sales were only 40% of revenues, down from 49% last quarter. However, the company announced that 40 million new users of BBM have signed up since the company released Android and iOS versions of the app.

The market responded to the news — and the fact that BlackBerry burned through $400 million in cash, less than expected, and still sits on $3.2 billion in reserves — by driving up the stock 3%.

Chen projects a turnaround in the new year, and he may be able to pull that off if these new hires can make things happen. As I have said, there is still room for them in the market, especially if they can get people using the technology on Android and iOS.


BlackBerry isn’t dead yet, and the market for mobile OS might not be closed, either

Looking back on what was a relatively quiet week, there no doubt that the actions at BlackBerry stood out.

First off, as I wrote about in Blackberry’s Chen is pushing hard to turn the company around, acting CEO John Chen cut a serious number of senior executives that had been brought in by Thorsten Heins, the previous CEO, who was fired early in November. This wave of execs included Kristian Tear, the chief operating officer,  Frank Boulben, the chief marketing officer, and the chief financial officer, Brian Bidulka, (who will be advising the company for a few more weeks). Roger Martin, a long-time director, stepped down from the board.

The company also announced agreements with a long list of Android smartphone makers to preinstall BlackBerry BBM on their phones, including Be, Brightstar, Celkon, EVERCOSS, IMO, Micromax, Mito, Snexian, Spice, TECNO, TiPhone and Zen.

Later in the week, BlackBerry announced its own social network, implemented inside of BBM, called BBM Channels (see BlackBerry announces social network within BBM). Channels based on the chat notion of ‘channels’, like those found in IRC, or the ‘chatrooms’ in Twitter when a group are following the same hashtag. However, BBM channels can be sponsored by brands or organizations, as well as individuals. What is unclear at present is whether there might be an enterprise angle for BBM Channels.

At present BBM Channels is only available on BlackBerry 10 devices, although the company plans to release versions for iOS and Android soon.

So, it appears that BlackBerry isn’t quite dead yet. PerPerhapsen’s actions could make the company viable enough to kindle interest for a sale, perhaps by one of the major Android phone manufacturers.

One More Thing

The dominance of iOS and Android on smartphones and tablets looks fairly unassailable, despite efforts by Microsoft to break in, and BlackBerry’s efforts to hang on. During this week there were a few interesting activities that suggest that innovation at the edge may be on the rise, as BlackBerry has shown. Another example is the chief secretary of Samsung, Wonsuk Lee,  proposing that Tizen and Mozilla OS could converge. Both are HTML5 based, meaning apps written for one could run on the other, for example.

In unrelated news, the Finnish startup Jolla released its first phone based on the Sailfish OS. The company was started by some ex-Nokia folks who had worked on the now dead MeeGo project. Apparently the company’s CEO, Tomi Pienimäki, plans to let existing Android users install Sailfish, which is supposedly easy to do. He then plans to make money on apps and other services.

So, just when is started to seem like the mobile OS market was closed to new entrants, new entrants start cropping up.

Blackberry’s Chen is pushing hard to turn the company around

John Chen

John Chen

John Chen, the acting CEO at BlackBerry, is unraveling some of the staff and strategy left behind by the prior CEO, Thorsten Heins, who left the firm earlier this month. On Monday, Chen dropped various chiefs: Kristian Tear, the chief operating officer,  Frank Boulben, the chief marketing officer, and the chief financial officer, Brian Bidulka, who will be consulting for the company through the end of the year. Roger Martin, a board member for six years, has resigned. Apparently all these chiefs aren’t needed in the newly refocused BlackBerry.

Chen said in the press release, “BlackBerry has a strong cash position and continues, by a significant margin, to be the top provider of trusted and secure mobile device management solutions to enterprise customers around the world. Building on this core strength, and in conjunction with these management changes, I will continue to align my senior management team and organizational structure, and refine the Company’s strategy to ensure we deliver the best devices, mobile security and device management through BES 10, provide multi-platform messaging solutions with BBM, and expand adoption of QNX embedded systems.”

Tear and Boulben are generally thought to be the heads that needed to be lopped off after the disastrous BlackBerry 10 series, which was supposed to be the springboard to a future BlackBerry that would still be manufacturing its own handsets.

It looks like Chen has decided to keep BlackBerry devices in his plans, and not to transition to a business communications service with client software on other smart phones, notably Apple and Android.

That being said, the company also announced agreements to preinstall BBM — BlackBerry Messenger — on a range of Android smartphones beginning next month. The companies cited include Be, Brightstar, Celkon, EVERCOSS, IMO, Micromax, Mito, Snexian, Spice, TECNO, TiPhone and Zen.

As I argued earlier in the year, there is a place for BlackBerry as a software-first company (BlackBerry could still be made into a software company), with is clients on the leading platforms communicating through its worldwide messaging network which has been built out at great expense. Looks like Chen is pushing hard to get there. We’ll have to watch his progress closely.