Almost two hundred years back, in the Battle of Waterloo, in spite of knowing that defeat is almost certain, Napoleon’s best soldiers, the ones that had served him the longest, the Imperial Guard, storm into the battlefield. Trying against all odds to turn the tide.
Admiring their courage, an English general stopped his soldiers from firing at them and riding out to them, very respectfully asked for their surrender. A defiant Viscount Cambronne, the general of the Imperial Guard, answered with one word:
“Merde!” (in English, we would say “s**t”).
The Guard did not surrender and fought ferociously to almost the last few soldiers. Napoleon lost the battle, but the Imperial Guard was not disgraced. Victor Hugo would call Cambronne’s answer as one of the bravest in history.
Speaking of which, this is not a history lesson. But I could not help but get a familiar feeling when BlackBerry unveiled the BlackBerry Classic yesterday. After a couple of years of experimentation, of trying new things, and a bevy of new devices, some totally new, some a blend of the old and the new, it was in many ways the charge of the Old Guard.
For make no mistake, for all the new BlackBerry 10 OS, the touchscreen, the compatibility with Android apps, BlackBerry Blend, and the attempt to make the specs sound high-end, the BlackBerry Classic is at its heart, well, classic BlackBerry. And no, it is not just about the keyboard – we saw that in the Q10, Q5 and even in the slightly rejigged Passport. It is about the panel of keys above the keyboard – the call receive and reject keys, the BBM key, the back key and the D-Pad. Yes, the 3.5 inch 720 x 720 display is a touchscreen, but the presence of those keys is BlackBerry bending its knee very courteously to its past, a statement that touchscreens are good, but that hardcore BlackBerry fans do not really need them. This is BlackBerry going back to the Bold series at its best.
Of course, it is too early to say whether this is going to be enough. BlackBerry’s devices from the Z10 onwards have always suffered in comparison with the flagships from Android, iOS and even the relatively less popular Windows Phone operating systems. In a way, the Classic is BlackBerry’s way of showing that it no longer wants to go toe-to-toe against those worthies and wants to go back on to the course that worked best for it – one which features very good keyboards, terrific messaging and mail and enterprise friendliness. It is the revenge of the conventional BlackBerry Boys, at whom the company had itself (in retrospect, almost suicidally) poked fun when it had tried to ‘reinvent’ itself for a wider audience.
The big question is: will it work? For, a couple of years is a long time in technology. A lot of the BlackBerry faithful have moved to other devices and platforms (faith is fickle in tech services, as Nokia and Symbian will testify). The battle for tech specs has intensified. Apps – another trend BlackBerry mocked with near fatal consequences at one stage – continue to be important. And phones are getting bigger than ever.
It is in this world that the Classic arrives. Some are already calling it a relic of a bygone era. But we would hesitate to write it off too quickly. Two years might be a long time in technology. But it is not as much in human memory. For many people, BlackBerry remains a word synonymous with enterprise phones. The interest a lot of people showed in the Passport proved that. And yes, for all the popularity of touchscreens, the stark fact is that most people who have used a BlackBerry keyboard (seen at its best in the Bold series) will vouch that it beats even the best touchscreen keyboards by a wide margin. In fact, the one reason why many people STILL persist in not considering tablets as “real” productivity devices is the lack of a “real” keyboard.
The BlackBerry Classic brings a real keyboard, complete with 35 backlit keys, to the smartphone wars. A war that many claim has already been won by the touch screens.
It is akin to the Imperial Guard charging at Waterloo that day in 2015 in Belgium. Refusing to go down without a fight.
In an interesting coincidence, the head office of BlackBerry is in a town in Canada.
It is called Waterloo.
The Classic is BlackBerry saying one word to its allegedly superior competitors: