In September 2014, Louks got sick and skipped a New York presentation on the Passport.
I asked BlackBerry (half) jokingly if Louks actually existed and was still on the job. It turns out he was quietly making the case for building a BlackBerry using Android.
While Chen wanted a stronger relationship with Google — one of the services BlackBerry offers is managing email on mobile devices, including those powered by Android — Louks pushed things forward by asking to build an Android smartphone in early 2014.
Chen wasn’t sold on the idea. And he wasn’t alone. BlackBerry veterans are accustomed to using the company’s own software to ensure the most secure devices, and Android lacked a reputation for security.
“There’s normal tension when you change a strategic decision,” Louks said. “People are going to question it.”
It wasn’t until Louks convinced Chen he could build an Android smartphone with security embedded in the hardware that he got the green light.
For the first BlackBerry Android phone, Chen wanted something special.
Outing the slider
During BlackBerry’s press conference at the Mobile World Congress trade show in March 2015, Louks walked onto the small stage with purpose. He whipped out a mystery smartphone with a slide-out keyboard and a curved glass display that wrapped around the sides. Just as quickly, he stowed it away in his pockets.
The “Slider,” as Chen called it, left an impression. A curved glass display was one of the marquee features of Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge, unveiled two days earlier. Samsung’s executives talked up the complicated process of building that wraparound display. Yet here was BlackBerry with the same feature.
Louks “understood the value in creating buzz,” said Scott Wenger, BlackBerry’s head of design. He joined the company in September 2014 after working with Louks at HTC and Sony Ericsson.
There was a reason for the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo: The device was little more than a mockup, with a backlight used to simulate an active screen. If you looked closely, the BlackBerry 10 home screen was visible — no Android.
Work on the prototype began in earnest after BlackBerry launched the Passport, a squat-looking smartphone with a square screen, in September 2014. But executives eyed concepts like the curved display, which Samsung supplied, months before.
The problem is, the Galaxy S6 Edge and the larger S6 Edge+ are already in the market with their curved displays. Won’t the BlackBerry’s Priv lose a little of its chic?
“Initially, I felt the wind was taken out of the sails,” Louks conceded. But he thinks BlackBerry can piggyback on Samsung’s marketing and sell people on wanting a phone with a curved display.
Louks and Chen are also betting the slide-out keyboard and the focus on security turns some heads.
Reason for excitement
Most assumed the slider phone would run on the BlackBerry 10 software. It was, after all, how the company had always operated.
Over the summer, however, leaks and images about an Android-powered BlackBerry popped up with increasing frequency.
In September, BlackBerry confirmed it would sell an Android smartphone in the fourth quarter. The Priv, which takes its name from “privacy” and “privilege,” aims to address the top complaint of former and current BlackBerry users: the lack of apps.
With Android, Priv users can tap into more than 1 million apps. As of last year, the BlackBerry World store offered 234,500 apps, although its phones can access Amazon’s Appstore with more than 330,000 programs.
“It’s the No. 1 issue across any device we release far and away,” Marty Beard, chief operating officer for BlackBerry, said in an interview last week.
The Priv was announced the same day in September that BlackBerry posted an adjusted loss and revenue that disappointed investors. Those investors are questioning the progress of Chen’s transformation of the business from a pure devices company into one that makes its money off software and services. Perhaps the Priv will give the company something to rally behind.
“This is the first thing that will get us cranking the other way,” said Greg Dunko, head of product development for BlackBerry.
The same story again?
BlackBerry’s last comeback effort was a disaster. Its BlackBerry Z10 smartphone launched with a marketing campaign that included a Super Bowl commercial and the support of multiple wireless carriers. The company ultimately had to take a charge of nearly $1 billion to account for unsold Z10 phones.
By embracing Android, BlackBerry has the potential to tap into a huge customer base. Yet many big-name companies, including HTC and Sony, are already struggling to make a dent in the Android smartphone market.
Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“It’s a near insurmountable challenge to succeed where others have failed,” said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research, about BlackBerry’s consumer prospects. Still, BlackBerry may be able to carve a niche in the business world, a place where it once held so much sway.
Louks is prepared for the challenge. The whirlwind pace of getting the Priv ready for prime time has meant that in the past year, the longest stretch he’s spent at home has been two weeks. But to Louks and his team, the sacrifice has paid off, and he believes the Priv is that something special Chen wanted.
“It’s completely different,” Louks said.