BlackBerry is winning converts, but not ones who really matter

No one's tossing out their iPhone 5

(Photo: Steve Sands/WireImage/Getty)

(Photo: Steve Sands/WireImage/Getty)

BlackBerry fans don’t have much longer to wait now—the Q10 is officially launching in Canada and a number of other countries on May 1, with the U.S. release coming just a few weeks later. While the first phone running the company’s new BB10 operating system—the Z10—became available in February, most people agree that the Q10 is the first real new BlackBerry, since it’s the one with the physical keyboard. Actual QWERTY buttons and BlackBerry have, after all, become synonymous over the years.

The Q10 is indeed the communications powerhouse that the faithful have been waiting for, although it still doesn’t necessarily stack up as a full-on lifestyle hub or enhancer. With a few flaws and a lack of apps, the Q10 (and the Z10, for that matter) aren’t nearly as fully featured as the latest iPhone or Android smartphones.

One of the things I mentioned in both my upcoming review and of the Z10 is that the dearth of apps compared to competitors may act as a deal breaker to a significant number of potential buyers. As good (or bad) as a phone might be, existing smartphone owners aren’t going to switch over if they have to give up apps they’ve become accustomed to. Personally, I just don’t think I could switch to a phone that doesn’t have Google Maps, because I use it just that much, which precludes either BlackBerry model for me, at least for now.

Besides app ecosystem lock-in, there are also the customer satisfaction numbers. Samsung, Nokia and especially Apple have typically scored well in such surveys, meaning that people who buy devices from those makers are generally quite pleased with them.

Given both those factors, I was a little surprised to hear CEO Thorstein Heins say back in March that 55% of Z10 buyers were coming from other platforms, meaning that BlackBerry was effectively stealing customers away from rival phone makers. I wondered if Heins might have been torquing that figure to include the older BlackBerry 7 platform, but company representatives I spoke to last week said that wasn’t the case—the figure solely represents other manufacturers. They wouldn’t expand beyond that, unfortunately.

I asked Kevin Restivo, IDC’s senior mobility analyst, for his thoughts. “I suspect that number mostly represents people moving up from older feature phones and low-end Android models,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t include much iOS, since iPhone users are insanely happy as a rule, and it’s highly unlikely to include the latest high-end Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S3.”

Kaan Yigit, president of consumer electronics tracking firm Solutions Research Group, agrees with that appraisal. “I would think that they are consolidating some lower-end Androids, old Nokia smartphones and some of the [first- and second-generation] iPhones,” he said. “Those together would be about 20 to 25 per cent of the market to be honest, and there would be enough trading up to support the relatively small numbers they are selling, probably.”

Given that, it looks like BlackBerry is exaggerating a little bit. The defections may indeed be happening, but they don’t appear to be coming from anywhere that really matters. It’s not like people are ditching their iPhone 5 in favour of a Z10, which would be a really notable development if it were indeed happening.

What is notable, though, is Yigit’s suggestion about the future opportunity for BlackBerry and every other Apple rival.

“The other thing to watch is a bit a of culture change—I am afraid Apple may soon end up with the boomer crowd if it doesn’t step up to bigger screens,” he said. “BlackBerry has that bigger screen like Samsung phones. It’s a factor for the youngsters.”