The tragic decline of BlackBerry Limited has been swift and unstoppable. This Canadian icon, which once literally defined the smartphone, is a shell of its former self. Over the past six years, consumers have gradually ditched the clunky phones for svelte and sleek Android and iOS devices. But there’s a category of user that’s less fickle, and has stuck with the BlackBerry through thick-and-thin. I’m referring to business and government users.
It’s hard to put a finger on the reason why. No small part is because people — and more realistically corporate IT departments — have become used to BlackBerry devices, and have no impetus to change.
But probably the biggest reason is because BlackBerry devices have a much-deserved reputation for security. Throughout its history, people have trusted BlackBerry phones in the way they haven’t Android devices, Palm Pilots, and even iPhones. Even in 2016, BlackBerry devices continue to set the standard for security and trust. Here’s why.
Making All the Right Moves
It’s hard to believe it right now, but during the early-to-mid 2000’s – when the company was called Research in Motion (RIM) – it made all the correct decisions to guarantee its success. Before anyone was talking about mobile security, RIM built a fundamentally secure mobile operating system.
The nucleus of BlackBerry OS was the subscription-based email service. At the time, RIM was unique in offering ‘push’ functionality.
The moment an email arrived in a user’s inbox, it would be pushed to their handset. This instantaneous delivery, plus the pavlovian chime that was made whenever one arrived, had an almost narcotic effect on the users, and resulted in the phones being nicknamed ‘Crackberries’.
It was also unique in the emphasis it made on security. All emails sent to BlackBerry devices were transported through servers operated by RIM, with the inbound and outbound connections protected with highly-secure transport-level security. This meant that it would be impossible for an attacker to intercept the messages or steal email credentials through a man-in-the-middle attack.
This sounds incredibly quaint right now. Push email and SSL are both commonplace. However, it’s worth remembering that at the start of the 2000’s, they weren’t.
Another advantage BlackBerry possessed was the ability for an IT department to remotely administer devices.
Corporate BlackBerry devices were connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). This meant that if an employee lost one on the bus, or in a café, the IT department could remotely wipe them. This limited the chance of any embarrassing data loss incidents.
It also meant that corporate IT departments could control the minutia of each device. If a company was concerned about someone exfiltrating sensitive information by taking photos of corporate documents, it could disable the cameras on each connected BlackBerry device.
Finally, BES made it easy to deploy multiple mobile devices on one fell swoop. Rather than having an IT worker configuring each phone manually, BES made it possible to deploy hundreds of devices simultaneously.
These factors made BlackBerry OS the most secure in the world, and ideal for cautious corporate IT departments. The devices could even be seen in the hands of world leaders. When Obama was elected in 2007, he fought tooth-and-nail with the Secret Service for the right to keep his beloved BlackBerry.
Even Angela Merkel has her own customized BlackBerry Z10, which was fitted with a Secusmart anti-eavesdropping chip. So too does Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who was pictured taking a selfie with Obama and David Cameron with it, during the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
BlackBerry in the Android Age
You don’t need to be told that BlackBerry Limited is in a rough state right now. In 2008, it dominated the still-nascent smartphone market. Shares of the company were traded on the NASDAQ for as much as $120 a share. Now, it occupies around 0.2% of the market, and you can purchase a piece of the company for less than a McDonalds Extra Value deal.
While customers have largely lost interest in BlackBerry devices, business are still buying them, albeit in slightly diminished numbers.
In 2013, BlackBerry Limited attempted to reverse their terminal decline by releasing the BlackBerry 10 Operating system, which was built upon the robust QNX OS, which BlackBerry Limited had acquired a few years earlier. This superseded the old, clunky BlackBerry 7 OS (which is still supported), with one that was fast, sleek, and beautiful.
It was a great operating system, and perfectly complimented the incredible BlackBerry build quality. I owned a BlackBerry Q10 for almost two years, and I still regard it as the best smartphone I have ever owned. When former MakeUseOf writer Yaara Lancet reviewed the Z10, she was similarly complimentary.
More importantly, BlackBerry 10 was highly secure. In the annual Pwn2Own contests, BlackBerry 10 devices were unscathed, while iPhones and Android phones were routinely compromised. It had integrated anti-virus powered by Trend Micro, and filesystem-level encryption. It was almost bulletproof.
That wasn’t enough. Towards the end of 2014, it became apparent that there was little room for a third player in the smartphone race. Even Windows Phone was struggling. The decision was made to switch to Android.
Right now, there’s one Android-powered BlackBerry smartphone — the BlackBerry Priv.
Just like its predecessors, it has an incredible emphasis on security. This goes as low-level as the supply chain, where each device is “signed” with a digital key, to prevent tampering. Modifications to the Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) and SELinux make it harder for malware to exploit vulnerabilities in Android. Also included is an app called DTEK, which passively monitors the device for any suspicious behavior.
It’s hard to understate how heavily modified the variant of Android running on the BlackBerry Priv has been. There have been hundreds of tweaks and changes, which have had the cumulative effect of making it almost invincible. It’s perhaps the most fundamentally secure Android smartphone on the market.
Beyond devices, BlackBerry Limited is focusing on enterprise-level services which make other Android devices more secure. The latest version of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server — BES12 — now comes with support for Samsung KNOX and Android at Work.
SOLARIN: A Challenger Approaches
Now, more and more smartphone manufacturers are competing to be the “most secure ever”. Devices are shipped with root access made unavailable to users, and both Google and Apple routinely scan their app stores for malware using static code analysis. Things like transport-level security, VPN support, and encryption are universally available.
But at the higher-end of the smartphone market, we see what “secure” truly means. Take Solarin by Sirin Labs, for example.
At $16,000, Solarin is probably the most expensive smartphone money can buy, rivalling offerings made by Virtu — the UK-based and Nokia-owned luxury phone manufacturer. In addition to being sold through their website, Sirin Labs own a shop in London’s luxe Mayfair district, as well as London Heathrow Airport. You won’t get this on a 24-month phone contract!
So, what makes it so special?
In addition to being exquisitely-built, it’s also unfathomably secure. It features an integrated Koolspan TrustChip device, which authenticates and secures mobile communications through sturdy 256-bit AES encryption. Solarin also includes a switch which, when pressed, enables a “shielded mode” for encrypted texts and calls. As you’d expect with a phone of that price point, it also includes a fingerprint reader.
You’re probably never going to own this phone. You probably won’t need to. If you’re that concerned about your privacy, a Priv will do. But, one day, could we see Angela Merkel ditch her BlackBerry for it? Perhaps.
Do You Still Use a BlackBerry?
I want to hear why. Is it because of security and privacy, or something else? Let me know in the comments below.