Can BlackBerry handsets make a comeback? The new Priv smartphone could do the trick, if it gets the marketing right, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
BlackBerry was left for dead a couple of years ago. Its share price had collapsed, its smartphone business was reeling from failed relaunches, and it looked ripe for the plucking by any of numerous tech giants.
Even when new CEO John Chen stripped the company to a lean, mean and focused core as a mobile security systems business, the future was never certain. The smartphone business was still contracting, and the BlackBerry 10 operating system became largely irrelevant.
Chen declared six months ago that BlackBerry would increasingly focus on its security solutions, and produce only one or two handsets a year. He put the company’s money where his mouth was by making a series of strategic acquisitions of software businesses.
So it has come as something of a shock to discover that BlackBerry has produced a smartphone that is possibly one of the best in the world today. It is even more of a shock to discover that it is an Android phone.
That alone is a clue to the new thinking at BlackBerry: corporate ego had kept it from embracing the touchscreen revolution after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007. It kept it from producing Android devices after it unveiled the first BlackBerry 10 phones in 2013 to a lukewarm reception. The decline of handset sales continued apace.
Marketing missteps, like failing to launch much-anticipated phones in key markets at the time the hype machine was exploding, and poor pricing strategy in developing countries, hurried the process along.
Which is another way of saying that, as good as the new Priv may be, it will live or die by marketing strategy.
And yes, it is very good.
The first thing that strikes one about the Priv, due in South Africa in the coming week from all networks, is the curved screen. It is the first mainstream handset in the world to follow Samsung’s example of curved edges: its S6 Edge and Edge+ allow for a side notification screen.
The purpose of the curve on the Priv is similar, but it is designed in such a way that, unlike the S6, the notification screen can’t be invoked accidentally while merely holding the phone. The user must swipe a finger across from the edge to bring up the notifications menu. The curve is also used in an aesthetically pleasing way to show charging status while the phone is in sleep mode.
“Along with Samsung, BlackBerry is the only vendor to have dual-curve edge technology in the marketplace,” said Gareth Hurn, BlackBerry’s director of global smartphone and software product management, during a visit to South Africa this week. “We’ve been conscious of designing the product where the emphasis is clearly on the design as opposed to only utility.”
The 5.4” Gorilla Glass 4 screen offers a sharp OLED display, with 2560 x 1440 Quad HD resolution. That would normally add up to swift battery drainage, but an intensive focus on power management – along with a healthy 3410mAh battery – promises 22,5 hours of mixed use.
The device can capture images in the new 4K format used by high-end TV sets, but will not display in the same format.
“We made the decision not to go with 4K display because the human eye would struggle to see the benefits on such a small screen, and it would result in a massive drain on the battery,” said Hurn.
There are a few other surprises. This phone marks BlackBerry’s long-overdue admission that the camera is a critical element of a smartphone in the second decade of the 21st century. It has fitted the device with an 18 megapixel rear-facing camera, described by Hunt as “the best camera BlackBerry has ever done, on a par with the latest from Samsung”.
It includes a dual flash and a range of professional features, like optical image stabilisation and live filters. A slightly raised stainless steel surround on the lens means it won’t be scratched while lying flat. A front-facing 2MP camera includes a panoramic selfie mode, which allows a series of photos to be blended together.
The manner in which it has enhanced Android with some of the standout features of BB 10 is also a pleasant surprise. Referring to it as “Android amplified”, BlackBerry has built in the unified inbox concept called BlackBerry Hub, as well as a “Pop-up Widget” feature which allows for more widgets to be displayed more compactly. Aside from these elements, the Android experience has been kept relatively free of bloatware.
The old fan-favourite, the BlackBerry red “splat” notification, is back, both in the Hub and on the home screen, but can be toned down for the notification-weary.
The biggest surprise of all – at least if no one warned you – is that, while it has the form factor of a typical phablet, the Priv has a slideout keyboard. It comes as a shock primarily because the 9.4mm thickness of the device does not hint at an additional component waiting to slide out. On the other hand, it contributes significantly to the 192g weight of the device.
Anyone who ever fell in love with the old BlackBerry Torch will feel compelled to try it out. Anyone who misses the physical QWERTY keyboard that once defined BlackBerry phones will be delighted with its responsiveness. Although the number keys share space with letters, the keyboard as a whole acts as a trackpad, with scrolling and cursor control across the keyboard. It also includes the standout feature of the original BlackBerry 10 phones, namely the ability to flick words up from a devilishly accurate predictive text layer above each of the four rows of keys.
The keys can be assigned shortcuts, so that holding down the “I”, for example, will open Instagram. Yes, thanks to Android, the Priv addresses this key gap in previous BlackBerry handsets.
Oh yes, the regular touchscreen also features a superb virtual keyboard that takes up the lower third of the screen when in use. In other words, you can have your cake or slide it.
There is more, such as the market-leading privacy and security features that give the phone is name, and a soft “tensile knit” coating on the back that gives the phone a comfortable, non-slip feel. An easy snooze function for reminders to respond to calls, messages or emails – customizable based on time, location or form of connectivity – is an example of a thoughtful approach to communications
The combined package makes it one of the best Android phones on the market – if it can reach the right market at the right time.
Will it bring old-time users back? Only if BlackBerry can get it into their hands at every possible moment when they are considering a new phone.
The shape of the SME future
What does the future of technology look like for South Africa’s SMEs? COLIN TIMMIS, general country manager of Xero SA and a professional accountant, looks into the tech crystal ball
Over the past decade, technology has radically changed the way businesses operate. Now, even small businesses have access to powerful tools that were previously expensive or complicated.
The pace of change has been rapid – and it’s unlikely to slow down. Businesses must keep up with technology to stay competitive. According to research conducted by Citrix, 92% of companies across South Africa’s key industries agree that digital adoption directly affects company profits. However, 54% still feel unprepared for the future.
So, what does the future of technology look like for South Africa’s small businesses? How can the other 46% of companies prepare?
5G and WiFi 6 – faster internet speed
In the foreseeable future, we will see a rapid increase in the use of fibre across South Africa. According to Xero’s State of Small Business Report produced with World Wide Worx, 49% of small businesses surveyed used ADSL connections and only 37% used fibre. When asked to describe their internet connections, 45% said they were ‘great’, while 43% said they were ‘okay but not 100% reliable’. 57% of those who said their connection was ‘great’ were fibre users.
South Africa is still playing catch-up in terms of internet connectivity and speed. However, WiFi 6 is set to improve the way routers distribute traffic to connected devices and increase the transfer speeds by around 30%. For when you’re on the go, 5G is the next generation of mobile data standard. It’s already being trialed by South African carrier Rain, and a broader rollout is expected in 2020.
Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence – more efficient software
Even if you aren’t aware of it, you’re probably already using smart software which leverages machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in your business. While only a tiny proportion of respondents (0.25%) from Xero’s State of Small Business Report say they are using them, most businesses are aware of how important they are.
AI and ML are great at taking large amounts of data and spotting patterns that humans might miss. They help businesses cover some of the more routine tasks so they are freed-up to focus on the most important priorities. For example, tedious tasks like bank reconciliation, can now be completely automated.
Blockchain – safer, more secure transfers
If you hear ‘blockchain’ and think ‘cryptocurrency,’ you’re not alone. However, the technology also has something to offer when it comes to existing payment technologies. Through its complexity and high level of encryption, integration with blockchain can make transferring valuable assets more secure. It can also be used for more effective fraud prevention and other security-focused tasks.
The cloud – access data everywhere
Cloud computing is starting to become a standard part of life for many small businesses in South Africa today. According to Xero’s State of Small Business report, 19% of respondents surveyed make use of cloud technology. Of these respondents, 98% reported a significant increase in profit thanks to adopting this technology – and 99% identified an increase in efficiency.
The trend towards cloud adoption is likely to continue as we see the development of technologies, like faster speed through fibre, WiFi 6, 5G, and machine learning powering it.
Integrated financial software
When it comes to accounting in a small business, these new technologies will enable much smarter ways of working. Take bank reconciliation, for example, where cloud storage and machine learning will search through documents and expenses on your behalf to compile reports.
Eventually, we will be able to access everything we want in one integrated, seamless hub. We can see this development through the use of app integration. Xero has 800+ apps already compatible, which enables small businesses to automate, gain better insight and grow their businesses all through one ecosystem of partners.
Access to capital
Open banking, the process of banks and financial services opening their APIs to the market, will shape how businesses access funding. By sharing their financial data instantly, potential investors have immediate access to a company’s revenue, profits and cashflow – enabling them to make fast, informed decisions.
Platforms like Xero keep all of a company’s financial data up to date. That way, when the company needs to file for a loan their documents are ready to go. Xero is also continuously pursuing new partnerships to help fuel small business growth. Earlier this year Xero partnered with three new alternative lenders, to help improve access to funding.
Digital adoption offers an island of stability in the volatile South African economy. Technology allows businesses to run more efficiently, remain globally integrated, and maximise their profits. Companies which keep up with the latest technology, from incorporating it into their processes to training staff, will have a real advantage over their competitors.
Cash is here to stay, and other trends shaping payments
As we enter the next decade, local and African merchants should support payment methods that suit their customers, rather than following global trends just for the sake of it. Peter Harvey, MD of payment service provider, DPO SA, looks at five trends we can expect over the next few years.
- Cash is here to stay – for now
Despite common perceptions, South Africa still has more than 11 million unbanked individuals and cash remains the preferred payment method for these and many other customers.
Harvey says: “As we enter 2020, we can expect a host of new digital payment technologies that sound like excellent options – and they may well be for some – but merchants need to carefully monitor their customer behaviour before they rush to try the latest gadget or fad.”
According to Harvey the banks and card companies like Visa and Mastercard will be placing a large focus on enticing consumers to move from cash to card-based payments in the coming years.
“Overcoming the reliance on cash will take a fair amount of time and effort,” says Harvey. “For merchants trading in a cash-based community, depositing money into a bank that tracks your spending, charges you to store your money, and then charges you again to withdraw it can seem unattractive. At the end of the day consumers will make their decision based on convenience, cost and risk.”
Card payments are expected to morph over the coming years. In South Africa the tap and pay method is becoming more commonplace. Harvey believes this and other near field communication (NFC) methods of card payments will continue to grow in use as shoppers become more trusting of the technology and retailers see the efficiency benefits of moving customers through their purchase cycle more quickly and easily.
- Mobile is still king
There is no doubt that the means to facilitate most digital payments in Africa will depend on mobile technology.
According to South African communications regulator, ICASA, South Africa has a smartphone penetration of 80%. In Sub-Saharan Africa meanwhile, the mobile phone penetration is 50% and the GSMA expects smartphone penetration to grow from around 40% to 66% in 2025.
Harvey says smartphone technology and wearable technology will allow for the growth in some of the newer payment tech, like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, but these payment methods will remain in the hands of the top LSMs and have little effect on the bottom of the pyramid customer base.
“For the moment USSD technology will still underpin the majority of mobile payment methods. Until smartphones increase in penetration, payments like m-Pesa will continue to dominate. Customers know and trust the solution and its these types of offerings that will need to be beaten by any new entrant over the next two to three years at least.”
- New decade, new banks
Harvey is upbeat about the new digital-only bank offerings like Tyme Bank, Bank Zero and Discovery Bank.
“It appears that 20Twenty was two decades too soon,” says Harvey. “The local markets are now finally ready for a new digital offering without the fuss and cost of the traditional offering. These banks stand a good chance of making an impact and making headway towards financial inclusion in the country.”
Harvey believes, that in order to boost the number of people using digital payments, the banking institutions, merchants and payment service providers need to start incentivising consumers to make the switch. Loyalty and Rewards will start playing an even bigger role in the near future.
- New services for the payment ecosystem
Based on demand, Harvey believes forward thinking payment service providers will work closely with their banking partners to focus on providing their mutual merchants with a ‘fully managed service’. This service includes: instant sign-up; a full suite of payment products; risk screening; account reconciliation; anti money laundering checks; access to shopping cart plugins; and a variety of other value-added services in the online digital payment space.
These services will enable digital retailers to quickly and easily start selling their services online, while protecting them from the associated risks.
The service benefits the banks as well as the broader digital ecosystem, as the payment service provider actively monitors and manages merchants and transactions, removing risk from the process and facilitating ‘good’ transactions.
- Identity technology takes centre stage
Looking at newer technologies, Harvey believes biometrics will continue to be the key focus.
Harvey says voice and facial recognition are set to take off in South Africa in 2020 and 2021 and he believes the key driver in this regard is the increasing use by the government.
“Banks and Home Affairs teaming up for the renewal of ID documents and passports is a major win for the average citizen,” Harvey says. “This falls neatly into the ‘convenience’ motivator and as people use and trust the biometrics used by the banks for this service, they will become less afraid to try it for payments.”
As technology rapidly improves, the payments ecosystem can expect some exciting advancements over the coming decade. Chat commerce and even augmented and virtual reality developments will almost all come with payment features. However, Harvey cautions against over exuberance.
Harvey says “Make sure you cater for what your customer actually wants, not what you think they should want. If working closely with African merchants, banks and customers has shown us anything, it’s that the fastest way to drive away business, is to dictate how customers pay. Provide the options and let them choose.”