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A BlackBerry Q5 on display at the company's Annual and Special Meeting, in Waterloo, Ontario, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. (Geoff Robins/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A BlackBerry Q5 on display at the company's Annual and Special Meeting, in Waterloo, Ontario, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. (Geoff Robins/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Review: No, the BlackBerry Q5 won’t save the company Add to ...

To further illustrate, let’s take a quick stroll through BlackBerry App World. Below are a few search terms I tried, and the results I got.

What I searched for:

Instagram

Top Three Results:

  • An app called “Awesome Photo Frames”
  • Instagram, a hip-hop track by LOC D.A.B and the Get*Um Gang (Which, to be fair, turned out to be super catchy).
  • Instagram, a track off the album Rule 5 Presents All Right in Ibiza, Vol. 3

What I searched for:

Google Maps

Top Three Results:

  • An app called “GPS Map for Google Map Free”
  • The Ghost EP by somebody named Hideyoshi. Why did this album come up in a search for Google Maps? Likely because of the third-most relevant result returned, which was...
  • Google Map, a song off The Ghost EP by Hideyoshi.

What I searched for:

Candy Crush

Top Three Results:

  • An app called “Candy Crush Unofficial Fan”
  • The Candy Crush EP, an album by somebody named J Caprice that features exactly two songs: “Caramel Kisses” and “Chocolate Covered Cherries.”
  • Candy Crush, an album by....oh what the hell, let’s just say there’s a weirdly high number of budding artists who are naming their albums after popular apps in what seems to be an attempt to show up in more app store search results. Now that I think about it, this is actually kind of brilliant.

It’s easy to take cheap shots at BlackBerry’s app wasteland, but all this speaks to a bigger problem. It’s a problem with all BlackBerrys and it’s the main reason I’m always so reluctant to recommend them, even though I personally like them better than most any other phone out there.

Imagine that buying a phone was analogous to buying a house. Apple makes pretty good houses. Google makes pretty good houses. But BlackBerry makes amazing houses, the safest and most energy efficient anywhere. Surely this counts for something. In this analogy, searching through the miserable BlackBerry app store is akin to buying one of those houses and discovering that you can only get three channels on cable. That’s annoying, especially when the other houses have HBO and all the other good channels, but not a dealbreaker. People can live without cable.

But consider the surroundings. That Apple ID you use to sign in to your iPhone also connects you to a massive wider ecosystem – Apple desktops, laptops, tablets, cloud storage, the iTunes store. In the case of Google’s Android, you are part of a community that includes Gmail, Youtube, tablets, Chromebooks, Google Docs and dozens of other products and services. With BlackBerry, you get... BlackBerry Messenger? The PlayBook?

Step outside your Apple or Google house and you’ll see a dense, bustling neighbourhood. Step outside your BlackBerry house and you’ll see a half-decent bus line and a grocery store nobody uses. BlackBerry’s problem isn’t the house. It’s the neighbourhood.

This is not an easy problem to fix. With the woeful exception of the PlayBook tablet, BlackBerry has never really made anything but smartphones. All the company’s other innovations, including its security, network services and even BBM, have been tailored to the smartphone. The one thing the two-and-a-half successful smartphone platform-makers in the world today (Apple, Google and, bringing up the rear, Microsoft) have in common is that they use smartphones to connect users to a far wider array of products and services. The reason these companies are able to do this is because they were building other things – laptops, operating systems, e-mail services – well before consumer smartphones even existed. BlackBerry never did anything like this, and now it is almost certainly too late to try to build a neighbourhood around a house. It’s cruelly ironic that BlackBerry’s role as the pioneer of the smartphone industry is a big part of the reason it lost control of the smartphone industry.

The Q5 is not a bad phone. If, like the Z10, it ends up selling poorly enough that it gets a price cut, it’ll probably be the next phone I buy. It is also one of the most important products BlackBerry will put out this year, because it is aimed at the growing segment of consumers who don’t want to shell out $750 for a high-end device.

Maybe it’ll end up hitting the intended sweet spot of customers who want a physical keyboard but can’t afford a Q10. If it does, the Q5 will be easily the biggest success of the year for BlackBerry. But I doubt it will, and I’m not sure the Q5 does much to address the wider issue plaguing all BlackBerrys.

If in a few years’ time BlackBerry goes out of business or pulls an IBM and become purely a services company, it won’t be because the Q5 was a bad house, but because it was built in a boring neighbourhood.

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