After a long wait, BlackBerry Ltd. has finally released its newest phone, the BlackBerry Passport. Whereas previous phone releases, like the Z30, Z10 and to some extent the Q10, mimicked other phones on the market, the Passport really had to do something special to be considered anything other than an iPhone or Android clone running a different OS. I was able to get a hold of one of the new Passports to see if it could capture some of BlackBerry’s glory from yesteryear, especially for feds.
In terms of form factor, there really is nothing like it. The device is squarer than other phones with a 4.5-inch touch screen in a true square 1:1 aspect ratio display. The resolution is an impressive 1,440 by 1,440 with 24-bit color depth, so pretty much everything on the screen looks great. The biggest problem is that while the square orientation does look pleasing when displaying calendars and maps, it becomes a problem when trying to do anything with a 14:9 or even a 4:3 native aspect ratio, like watching videos. Perhaps that won’t matter to government users, but it might to BYOD folks who want to have a little fun after work.
The overall size of the device is a bit wider than most people are used to at 3.56 inches. It’s also 5 inches tall and .36 inches thick. And at 6.91 ounces, it’s not exactly a lightweight for phones these days, but it still fits into most shirt pockets, though just barely. It’s actually almost identical in size to a real passport book, hence the name of the product.
The internal hardware is all pretty nice, but the reason that feds will likely want to take another look is because BlackBerry can offer good smartphone performance coupled with security. BlackBerry has received the Full Operational Capability certification for operation on Defense Department networks. Not only that, but BlackBerry’s EMM Solution is FIPS 140-2 validated for the BlackBerry 10 operating system and Secure Work Space program for iOS and Android.
There are a couple of neat features on the BlackBerry Passport as well. For one, the keyboard is more functional as an interface. The hard keys are far easier to use than typing on a screen — I wrote most of this column on the phone just to be sure. However, the Passport does add a row of soft keys to the bottom of the screen that are used for numbers and symbols. So you don’t have to hit shift or alt to use alternative characters. Your keyboard is just your keyboard — unless you are using it as a touchpad, that is. Yes, you can run your finger across the keys, and they will detect it and move the cursor. If you turn the device sideways when browsing, you can use the keyboard as a scroll bar for Web pages.
Users can also partition home and work areas on the phone without incorporating a third-party program. Each side can have different wallpapers, contacts and even apps. Passports deployed by government agencies could have their work sides totally locked down and secure and only allow access to certain apps. Those same phones could leave the home side more open for people to do with them as they wish. Having Angry Birds running on the home side won’t compromise government security in the workspace. That might be a perfect compromise BYOD solution for some agencies.
Finally, the Passport has the ability to run Android apps though an emulation program. Once engaged, you can head over to the Android market of your choice and install whatever programs you want. I tested quite a few, and they seemed to work well, though a couple did experience some pauses while running under the simulated environment.
I doubt that the Passport will suddenly start competing on the open market with Androids, Windows and iPhones, but for government usage, this might be the right balance of security and functionality. It’s conceivable that quite a few agencies could standardize on the Passport and the secure BlackBerry 10.3 operating system, helping employees reap the productivity rewards that a mobile workforce can offer — but without the vulnerabilities that doing so normally entails.