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Can Priv save BlackBerry?

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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