I’ve never been a Blackberry fan. Before I ended up getting an HTC Touch Pro 2 I had considered getting a Blackberry Storm because Verizon was offering a buy one get one free deal. I was too young to know that was a bad sign, but eventually I ended up doing more research before landing on the Touch Pro 2.
Since then I’ve continued to do what most smartphone fans have done regarding Blackberry; I’ve ignored them until a press release reminds me that they haven’t been sold to someone or finally closed up shop. I remember laughing to myself that the company who prided itself on having a stellar email experience (which, by the way, was not the case if you were a business that used Microsoft Exchange) didn’t have an email application for their first tablet. I remember reading about how the company was so baffled that Apple had made an honest to God smartphone that they thought Apple had faked the whole thing until they could get their hands on one. Blackberry has always been a joke to me, but the Priv is different.
In a world where every Android manufacturer is struggling to make money, where Samsung and HTC are fighting to copy Apple better and faster than the other, where LG refuses to make a good looking and functional Android skin, where Motorola has gone through multiple acquisitions and appears to have lost its mojo, where Sony has made fantastic phones year over year that aren’t available in America and feature the same seven year old design… We’re in desperate need of change. We need research that goes forward in motion. We need someone, anyone to break from the mold.
What makes the Priv that special something that we’ve needed? The Priv could be a terrible phone. I would not be surprised if the camera is mediocre, the speaker is disappointing, and the keyboard feels like little more than a relic, but it represents the kind of innovative spirit that seems to have left the industry.
No one is willing to try anything different anymore. Everyone is releasing gigantic phones in the same shape and size as everyone else. Part of that process was the standardization of the black slab as the form factor for our pocket computers, but that was really driven by a desire from carriers and manufacturers to differentiate based on software. The assumption was that if everyone is drawing from the same pot of components then hardware differentiation becomes less and less important. So we saw Blur and TouchWiz and Sense and Facebook Home and CyanogenMod and all sorts of other ways to make phones look and work differently. Custom ROMs mattered as hardware became nothing more than a spec war. How much RAM is in my phone or how many GHz my processor can run up to or if my phone has USB-C with only 2.0 speeds or USB 3.0 with a weird charging cable or blah blah blah. The spec war has been boring for years and the software differentiation served only to confuse users, annoy Android purists, and force Google into doing better design than HTC, Samsung, LG, Huawei, or Sony could ever dream of doing. OK, that last part was good, but the rest of it was maddening.
So, again, what makes the Priv so special? Why does it matter? The Priv defies those categories. It has the nice specs out there for the nerds to ogle at, but most importantly it runs what appears to be close to stock Android with meaningfully differentiated hardware. We’ve seen phones with keyboards before, sure, but when was the last time there was a flagship with an actual slide out keyboard? It was so long ago even Wayback Machine doesn’t know. And while a front facing speaker certainly isn’t revolutionary, it also still isn’t the standard even though having front facing speakers empirically provides a better experience. I’m not a fan of the Galaxy S6 Edge because the edge is a little too steep in my opinion, but I do like curved displays, which the Priv features. The Priv’s camera also includes optical image stabilization, which doesn’t promise perfect pictures, but it should help in low light situations. What does all of this add up to? A phone that is actually unlike everything else out there.
I don’t expect the Priv to be the phone of the year, but I’d love to see it be a contender. After all, isn’t hardware differentiation something we all pine for as Android users? We loved the original Droid not just because it did things the iPhone didn’t, but because the hardware was special. We’ve gone so far in the other direction to the point where using metal instead of plastic is a meaningful differentiator. I’m all for using better materials, but I’d so much rather see manufacturers take some risks and try something new instead of watching all of them die trying to do the same thing their dying competitors are doing.
With Chinese manufacturers on the rise who are able to do what the best of Android’s manufacturers do, but cheaper, I think hardware differentiation becomes a valuable asset. There are so many different things that could be done with a mobile computer’s hardware. Keyboards are great, but what about things like a killer slide out controller for gaming or having a screen on the back of the device or the ability to slide on a battery pack that is flush to the device or whatever else. No one seems to be trying something new. Maybe it’s just that candy bar phones are all we need, but maybe, just maybe, Blackberry is serving as a reminder that hardware design not only matters, but can serve to make the product different in meaningful ways.