BlackBerry doesn’t want to be called a hardware company anymore. It wants to focus on enterprise, security solutions and software. Looking at the downward trend of their hardware business of late, the decision isn’t really surprising. But it still needs hardware to showcase its software prowess and has of late launched a few mobile phones heavily focused on security. BlackBerry is making a case wherein it tells you that your regular smartphones aren’t secure enough, cites several recent incidents when Android vulnerabilities have left millions of smartphones worldwide exposed. To some extent, I second BlackBerry’s stance on this as several smartphone companies are very slow to release security patches and in some cases the patches don’t cover the entire range. But is that enough for customers including enterprise ones to invest in BlackBerry, a company that has been missing in action for quite some time in the mobile phone segment, and perhaps soon exit the smartphone business altogether.
Not that BlackBerry is short of ideas to become relevant to users in last few months. Take a look at the Priv, which was a pretty decent Android smartphone. But the company missed the bus with its buggy software, and ridiculous pricing. BlackBerry now aims to correct these with DTEK50 and DTEK60 smartphones, priced at Rs 21,990 and Rs 46,990 respectively. Unlike the Pixel series wherein Google has taken control over the hardware and software, the DTEK50 and DTEK60 are mere rebranded Alcatel 4 and Alcatel 4S with BlackBerry’s software and security solutions. If you talk about just the specifications, these smartphones aren’t really competitive enough to appeal to end users who are spoilt for choices. I will elaborate this later on. Also, BlackBerry is betting on its security features to be the difference maker, make the devices stand out from the crowd. I spent time with both the smartphones, here are my first impressions.
Let’s first talk about the lower-end DTEK50 smartphone. At the very first glance you know, the smartphone has an underwhelming looks. After having seen several metal-clad and glass back phones, which I believe have more premium feel to them, the DTEK50 comes out as an archaic smartphone, in terms of look. It has a rubber back along with metal on the sides which are supposed to provide a better grip to users. The design does solve the purpose of delivering an easier grip and is incredibly light. This 5.2-inch phone feels slightly wider in the palms and is slim at 7.4mm. The power button is located on the left hand side while the volume up and down buttons are on the right hand side. Just below the volume buttons, you have a dedicated button, dubbed as Convenience Key, which can be further customized to launch certain apps. The button looks very similar to the circular button seen on Sony’s Xperia phones.
The smartphone comes with a 5.2-inch full HD display along with scratch-resistance and oleophobic coating. Talking about taking things so far, BlackBerry says the coating keep someone else from copying your fingerprint marks. Ambient lighting wasn’t really ideal for brightness tests, but the DTEK50 offered pretty decent indoor legibility.
Now let’s talk about the biggest highlight of the smartphone – software and security features. The smartphone runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow out-of-the-box. While the UI is pretty close to Android, which is not a bad thing at all, BlackBerry has added several features, mostly focused on security. The biggest of the lot is the DTEK app, which is aimed to be the single platform for users to find out about which app is using what permissions and detect any security issues if there are any. The app comes with a meter with different colors – red, yellow and green. If the meter is on the green bar, it means your phone is secure enough whereas red and yellow bars mean you need to take some preventive measures. The DTEK app also tells which app has used what data from your phone and how many times it has done it over period of certain time.
DTEK is not entirely unique considering there are other brands that are also providing similar features in their UI and even Android itself now has app permission manager, but the DTEK app seems to be much more informative, and educating for end users. Besides information about the permissions and security measures you should take, the app also notifies you when someone is taking pictures or videos without your knowledge, switches on the microphone, text message or access contacts or location.
Then there are some minor tweaks. For an example, there are certain apps that have three dots below their icons. The three dots means one can simply swipe up to preview the widget and swipe down to go back to the home page. This, BlackBerry claims, helps save real estate on the screen. Then there’s the BlackBerry Hub, which shows messages from all applications including Slack, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and SMS at one place. The Hub doesn’t seem to have changed a lot, but continues to be an useful tool for users.
Touted as the ‘most secured phone’, the BlackBerry DTEK50 has multi-layer security. BlackBerry has added an ‘Address Space Layout Randomization’, a feature that scrambles system memory to make it harder for someone to breach the security. The smartphone also has included an improved bootloader that ensures a more secure boot process and that only BlackBerry-signed OS can be installed on the device. Also, it has a FIPS 140-2 Compliant Full Disk Encryption, which is aimed to secure users’ private information in case of theft or lost.
At least on paper, I find these security features very cool, and perhaps very necessary for Android users, who have long grappled with issues of malware and other security threats. From enterprise point of view amid growing culture of BYOD, such security solutions become highly pertinent for both users and employers. But at the end, if I am paying about Rs 22,000 approximately for a smartphone, I would want little more than what the DTEK50. At this price point, the market is flooded with numerous Android devices with better specifications. Like the Lenovo Z2 Plus, which I believe is good looking and even offers top-end specifications to woo performance enthusiasts. With Snapdragon 617 processor and 3GB of RAM, the DTEK50 isn’t really the device I’d like to spend over Rs 20,000. At the end of day, the smartphone is aimed at a niche audience, mostly enterprise users and those who really want a super secure phone.
Same goes with the DTEK60, which is more of a premium smartphone with top-of-the-line specifications like Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM. It has fingerprint scanner on the back and 5.5-inch Quad HD, covering almost all aspects for a premium segment. But at Rs 47,000 approximately, will it woo users who are more inclined to buy the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge or iPhones? I am not really sure.
BlackBerry is not alone trying to entice companies for a more secure smartphone for their employees. BlackBerry was certainly the first off the block but the void it left in the last couple of years has been filled up. While Apple has made inroads with enterprise customers by promising security, custom apps and services, even Samsung has made great strides with its Knox platform. It is not uncommon to see enterprises give out basic and mid-end Galaxy smartphones with Knox configured on them.
As I said earlier, I am totally game for super secured smartphones, and they should be available to everyone. Looking at the fragmented Android smartphone market where devices start at as low as Rs 3,000 and even lower, I would wish BlackBerry to launch such ‘secure’ smartphones at much lower price. But at the same time I don’t really see the company doing it anytime sooner. What would make more sense is making these suite of security apps available to all the devices, and continue to focus on software rather bundling them with mediocre hardware.