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How BlackBerry could be a last-minute fixer-upper

commentary BlackBerry's darkest days arrived after the handset and OS that were supposed to save it. A couple of tweaks and a bit of time, though, could still improve its standing.

BlackBerry Z30
The BlackBerry Z30 is the future for BlackBerry -- assuming there is much of a future.
Brian Bennett/CNET

It was a Hail Mary pass that badly missed its mark: the release of BlackBerry 10 and its first cellular vessel, the Z10.

And in the ensuing series of downs, BlackBerry suffered injury after injury. These included a failed promise to bring BlackBerry 10 to the Playbook, delays in delivering BBM to iOS and Android, and T-Mobile's yanking of BlackBerry from its US retail stores. In the space of about six months after the Z10's debut, the company was in free fall, having lost nearly a billion dollars, having sought far and wide for a potential white knight, and having set in motion a retreat from the public markets.

Goodness, one might think, what a horrible handset this must have been! Did the user interface sear people's eyes?

To the contrary, the BlackBerry Z10 may not have had the hardware design appeal of an HTC One, but it had a respectable if understated elegance. There's certainly some truth to the conventional wisdom that the handset and OS were too little, too late, particularly given that BlackBerry was not able to invest in attracting developers in the way that Microsoft has after its first Windows Phone stores were dry. But other factors have made BlackBerry 10 a tough sell both to its installed base as well as new customers.

You know what, though? BlackBerry can take steps to address those problems.

The Android app double-edged sword
Unable to drum up interest among enough developers -- and the right ones -- to support BlackBerry's native SDK, the company formerly known as Research in Motion came up with a pretty clever plan: support Android apps, but distribute them via its own app store. BlackBerry launched with a fairly healthy app store compared to the debuts of WebOS and Windows Phone. But because Android developers had to manually submit and possibly even tweak their apps for BlackBerry, relatively few did. Unlike Microsoft, which started small and has plugged away to get key apps and games onto Windows Phone, BlackBerry's app library started off relatively well but then fizzled.

Particularly with rumors of Lenovo acquiring some or all of BlackBerry, there's an opportunity to rebuild many of BlackBerry 10's user interface niceties atop Android much as Amazon has done. These could be rebranded a BlackBerry OS the way Amazon has branded its Android variant Fire OS, or it could simply be BlackBerry's own set of APIs atop a Google-certified handset, in much the same way that Samsung recently promoted at its developer conference.

BlackBerry can also take a lesson from Barnes & Noble which, outgunned at its own Nook app efforts, opened the doors to Google Play. At the very least, BlackBerry needs to clear the path for Android apps to its handsets, even if it points the path down a slippery slope.

Redefining efficiency
BlackBerry has always been a tool for the productive. With knowledge of its keyboard shortcuts, an experienced BlackBerry user with adroit thumbs could tear through e-mails like a weed whacker. In contrast, the iPhone interface, while allowing for great discoverability, could be relatively inefficient for many tasks. BlackBerry has tried to preserve rise of this legacy with BlackBerry Flow.

Flow allows you to, among other things, keep constant tabs on -- and respond to -- your various inboxes without leaving your app. It's a great nod to BlackBerry's heritage of keeping messaging front and center. However, it's a different kind of efficiency proposition than the old OS offered -- productivity among apps rather within them. The release of the BlackBerry Q10 didn't do much to bolster BlackBerry sales despite many keyboard shortcuts being preserved, but it is still an important product for BlackBerry loyalists even as they bemoan the loss of the button row.

For a company that controls its own hardware and software, there aren't many specially tailored capabilities on BlackBerry hardware. BlackBerry could bring back the button row or make it a row of tailored systemwide soft keys as with Android. Or it could bring back the optical trackpad with new shortcuts for swiftly moving through apps. It could do all these things without compromising Android app compatibility.

The cult of the achiever
BlackBerry has always been a business tool -- and still can be. In its heyday, meanwhile, its appeal was broad enough to cover the text-happy teen as well as the Type A trader. With the rise of the app economy, that latter market became the most vulnerable.

BlackBerry's focus, which has some similarity to Lenovo's "for those who do" motto, became self-selecting. On the one hand, many simply didn't understand or identify with the new focus. On the other, even many customers who do identify found themselves in an unfamiliar land. Apple had time to acclimate those used to other phones to the iPhone, while Microsoft has taken years to close the app gap and refine Windows Phone's interface and feature set with some small signs of progress.

Much as Microsoft has with its Surface tablets, BlackBerry must keep plugging away while the rest of its ecosystem fills in or is replaced. The new BlackBerry Z30 presents a dramatically larger screen, the kind of display that all but Apple have embraced. News that Verizon will carry the device not only represents a win with the largest US carrier, but provides an opportunity for BlackBerry to work more more closely with the carrier on retail staff education and merchandising.

Hopefully, BlackBerry's new owners or backers will give it the time it needs and not cast its ashes to the wind.